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New Book Rates US Presidents - 2004-07-23

The 13th president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, is credited with the installation of indoor plumbing in the White House and virtually nothing else. With the race for the White House in full swing, Sheryl Swenson explores the qualities that make presidents great leaders, or greatly forgettable.

President Bush and John Kerry are on the campaign trail, each trying to convince American voters that they possess the qualities to best lead the nation. But do they?

"It seems that what distinguishes great presidents from others is a sense of vision and purpose, being a person of ideas, having a sense of conviction, and going after crises and challenges in one's presidency with real tenacity," says political scholar Leonard Leo.

Mr. Leo says charisma and strong leadership traits set outstanding presidents apart from those who merely occupied the Oval Office for a time. He and his colleague, James Taranto, asked 78 historians and political experts to rate each president on a five-point scale. They combined the results and published the rankings in their book, Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and Worst in the White House.

And the winners? America's first president was first on the list: George Washington, who led the fight for America's independence. Next on the list are Abraham Lincoln, who pulled the United States through the Civil War still united, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who brought the nation into World War II, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

"I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us," President Roosevelt said.

Although they served in office in three different centuries, the three "greats" all dealt successfully with what James Taranto calls unparalleled crises.

"Part of what makes for the comparison is the era. The man makes the era and the era makes the man," he explains. "Abraham Lincoln might not be a great president if he had been in office 40 years later. But he happened to be there at the time when the country needed him."

As for the worst presidents, the three lowest-ranking chief executives were Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, names that may be unfamiliar to most audiences, even to most Americans. Leonard Leo says that like their successful counterparts, failed presidents share certain qualities.

"Presidents who were not men of vision, who do not have an overarching sense of what the purpose of the presidency is and what they want to accomplish, they tend to rate very poorly as well," he says.

Mr. Leo and James Taranto note that the public's preferences are often based more on sentiment than hard facts. Peggy Noonan's essay on John F. Kennedy, which appears in Presidential Leadership, examines the way many Americans related to this charismatic leader and his assassination in November 1963.

"History will take a cool-eyed look at John F. Kennedy and his accomplishments and failures only when all who were alive when he was alive are gone. Until then, his reputation will be dominated by twilight remembrances and 'Where were you when you found out?'" James Taranto reads.

Although many Americans remember him fondly, scholars ranked John F. Kennedy as the runaway winner in the "overrated presidents" category.

Because the survey was conducted in 2000, George W. Bush was not included in the ranking; however, nine months after his inauguration, he was thrust into the same sort of unparalleled crisis that Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt faced in their time.

"Our nation, this generation, will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future," president Bush said. "We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail."

Leonard Leo says that President Bush has the potential to score well in their next survey.

"In terms of how he'll do, if you do believe that sense of vision and tenacity in the face of challenges like war are important benchmarks for leadership, depending on how things go over the next few months in Iraq, he could fare very well long term," he says.

Voters in the upcoming election will determine how well he fares in the short term.