BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama’: Grading The Chief Executives on the ‘Constitutional Curve’

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama': Grading The Chief Executives on the 'Constitutional Curve'

This year marks the centennial of the election of Woodrow Wilson, a date that will live in infamy for many people — including the present reviewer– who believe that his presidency was an unmitigated disaster. Steven F. Hayward, author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama” (Regnery, 272 pages, bibliography, index, $19.95) agrees with my assessment, giving Wilson a grade of “F.” A tentative “F” goes to Barack Obama — tentative because his administration is a work in progress.

Conventional wisdom, a phrase popularized by economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his 1958 book “The Affluent Society” (we wish!), is absolutely wrong when it comes to grading presidents, says strict constructionist of the Constitution Hayward:

He argues, persuasively in most instances, that academics, journalists, and popular historians are on the same page that our greatest presidents are the ones who confronted a national crisis and mobilized the entire nation to face it. That’s the conventional wisdom. The chief executives who are celebrated in textbooks and placed in the top echelon of presidents in surveys of experts are the “bold” leaders— the Woodrow Wilsons and Franklin Roosevelts— who reshaped the United States in line with their grand “vision” for America.

To an interpreter of the Constitution like Hayward, the conventional wisdom assessment of “great” presidents — those who inevitably expanded government and shrunk our liberties — is absolutely wrong. Unfortunately, the history books used in most schools — from elementary to university levels — neglect the measures that Hayward celebrates — strict observance of the Constitution and appointing Supreme Court justices who follow this pattern.

Steven F. Hayward

Steven F. Hayward

At the very least, books ought to mention these measures, but they don’t because most books are written by liberals and laud activist presidents and weigh in with scorn on those, like Calvin Coolidge, who follow the Constitution the Founding Fathers created, Hayward says.

By the way, “Silent Cal” Coolidge, who took over after Warren G. Harding’s death in 1923 and served until Herbert Hoover took over in 1929,  gets the top grade, an A+!   Hayward says (Page 77) that “liberal historians have reviled and belittled” Coolidge “even more than Warren Harding or Herbert Hoover, chiefly because Coolidge is a more formidable figure who presents the most serious challenge to the pretensions of Progressivism.”  Coolidge, a graduate of Amherst College, where he studied history and the classics, was unfairly mocked by liberal historians as a bland Babbitt. Coolidge was the last president to write his own speeches and he guided the country through years of prosperity and limited government, and was one of the most cultured men ever to live in the White House, thoroughly conversant in both Greek and Latin, Hayward writes.

Wilson, the only president with an earned doctorate (from Johns Hopkins University),  was the epitome of Progressivism, yet he was a racist who segregated the U.S. government;  fired all the black postmasters when he took office in 1913;  created a propaganda bureau headed by George Creel that some historians believe was a model for that of the Nazis; screened the pro Ku Klux Klan movie “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House; dragged the nation into a European war that Americans didn’t want any part of; created a “Red Scare” reign of terror far exceeding that of Joe McCarthy after the war, and violated the Constitution. All this from a Democrat!

Hayward was preaching to the choir when he wrote of this icon of the Democratic Party: I had read books by Nicholas Patler, historian Sidney Bell, who taught at West Virginia’s Concord College,  William C. Bullitt and others that presented this contrarian — to conventional wisdom — view of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, so it didn’t take much convincing by Hayward for me to agree with the assessment. Link:kinchendavid.wordpress.com/…/parallel-universe-reassessing-woodro...

Not so much Harding and Hoover, graded B+ and C- respectively. I’d give both of them an “F”. Harding’s brief administration was full of corruption and Hoover was actually more of an activist than his 1932 opponent, New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who actually campaigned to the right of Hoover. I’m a fan of the Constitution, but I don’t think FDR deserves the “F” grade, which Hayward awards him because of his efforts to “pack” the Supreme Court, for his appointments to the court and for his activism in general. My wife and I live primarily on our Social Security benefits, so I’m glad that the Social Security Act was passed in FDR’s administration and was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Similarly, although I have mixed feelings about the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson — especially his efforts in pursuing a war in Indochina that we had no business fighting — I’m glad that Medicare was adopted in 1965, during Johnson’s administration. Hayward awards LBJ an “F” — I would give him a gentlemen’s “C.”  Johnson’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy, gets a C-, which I think is fair, as is the C+ granted by Hayward to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said that the two biggest mistakes of his administration sat on the Supreme Court!  Hayward also grants a C+ to “Give ’em Hell” Harry Truman. I’m a big fan of Truman and I’d give him a B+. Truman was the only one of the presidents in the book who didn’t go to college, but he had street smarts from his days in Kansas City machine politics. He also did the right thing to recognize Israel, against the advice of his advisers and the State Department.

C+ is a favorite grade of Hayward, also going to Richard M. Nixon and  Gerald Ford. Ford probably deserves the grade, but I think — despite the ongoing elevation of the reputation of Nixon that the paranoid “Tricky Dick” probably deserves no more than a plain old “C.”

I wasn’t surprised that Hayward gave a F to Jimmy Carter, the one-term Democrat who can’t stop writing and talking about the glories of his administration. Carter was the first president to be born in a hospital — a surprise to me. I would have guessed that JFK  would have had that honor, but before the 1920s, when Carter was born, it was common practice for women to give birth at home, often with a midwife in attendance.

No surprise that Ronald Wilson (he was named by his Democratic father after good old Woodrow) Reagan earned a solid A- from Hayward. The author is a biographer and obvious admirer of the former actor and California governor. (A personal note: Reagan was the first — and last — Republican I voted for, and I never told my mother of my vote; she was a staunch Democrat. She went to her grave in 1984 never knowing of my transgression.)

I won’t give out the grades for the Bushes, father and son (or as French-speaking Mitt Romney might say, pere et fils); I want people to read this excellent Politically Incorrect Guide. Depending on your political persuasion, you’ll applaud or have your blood pressure rise, but you’ll learn much about the presidents of the past century.

As the twentieth-century presidency has grown far beyond the bounds the Founders established for the office, the idea that our chief executive is responsible to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” has become a distant memory, Hayward says.
Hayward reminds us that the Founders had an entirely different idea of greatness in the presidential office. The personal ambitions, populist appeals, and bribes paid to the voters with their own money that most modern presidents engage in would strike them as instances of the demagoguery they most feared— one of the great dangers to the people’s liberty that they wrote the Constitution explicitly to guard against. The Founders, in contrast to today’s historians, expected great presidents to be champions of the limited government established by the Constitution.

About the Author
Steven F. Hayward is the F.K Weyerhaeuser Fellow in Law and Economics at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. and is a regular contributor to the influential blog, Powerline. His written work has appeared in the New York Times,Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Chicago Tribune. Hayward is also an author whose previous books include the critically-acclaimed two-volume biography of Ronald Reagan, The Age of Reagan; Churchill on Leadership; and Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Modern Statesmen. Hayward lives with his wife in Virginia.

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