The main idea of this book is to review success or failure of presidents from two different angles. One is the evaluation of contemporaries based on voting history: winning 2 terms and leaving next president of own party constitute success. One term or change of party in power after the second term constitutes failure. The second angle is history evaluation, which actually means evaluation by historians based on a number of polls. This angle is highly subjective and susceptible to influence of historians’ own political views, which are typically leftist, big government supporting views. From this point of view whoever president increased size and power of government is a good president. The other set of ideas reviewed is about what makes or breaks individual’s reputation as good or great president. This is highly dependent on circumstances: war vs. peace, massive change in direction of the country make presidents great like Lincoln or FDR, while continuation of prosperity and prevention of big political earthquakes like Coolidge or Eisenhower does not.
PART I: THE HISTORIANS
Chapter 1. The Judgment of History
This is about history of surveys of historians about presidents that started in 1948 by Arthur Schlesinger and continues ever since with some presidents going up and others down in ratings, but with relatively small variations.
Chapter 2. The Vagaries of History
This chapter nicely demonstrates how historians’ evaluations are dependent on the latest greatest book published by the same historians about one president or another.
PART II: THE PEOPLE
Charter 3. The Making of the Presidents
This is about history of presidency as institution and how it changed over time moving from the office of equal or even somewhat inferior power to legislature early in XIX century to the office consistently getting more power during civil war, even if it was somewhat diminished after the war. Eventually starting with Teddy Roosevelt early in XX century it was gaining more and more power, eventually achieving levels of contemporary imperial presidency.
Chapter 4. The Presidential Referendum
This chapter is about presidential election as referendum on results of the president in power. It includes description of 13 Keys (6 false keys means party change) for reelection, which predictable power was ones again confirmed by elections of 2016:
Chapter 5. The Judgment of the Electorate
This is about judgment of electorate based on examples of presidents Cleveland who had 2 non-consecutive terms failing to be reelected both times, Madison and Grant who were both reelected and left their party in power after the second term.
Chapter 6. The Stain of Failure
The meaning and making of presidential failure discussed here using examples of presidents Harding, Taylor, Fillmore, and Pierce. However the most detailed discussion of failure provided is about pre-civil war Buchanan who basically created conditions for the war and after civil war Andrew Jonson who made recovery extremely difficult. This chapter based on historians’ evaluation and being leftist creatures they are, they include in failure both Coolidge who avoided depression after market crash in early 1920-21 by using laissez faire policy and Hoover who was instrumental in creating great depression after market crash in 1929-33 by strong governmental intervention.
PART III: THE TEST OF GREATNESS
Chapter 7. War and Peace
This is review of war presidents and analysis of which of them achieved greatness and which did not. It reviews Madison – War of 1812(Success), Polk – Mexican War (Success), Lincoln – Civil War (Success), and McKinley – Spanish War (Success), Wilson – WWI (Failure), Roosevelt – WWII (Success), Truman – Korean War (Failure), Johnson – Vietnam War (Failure), Bush I – Iraq War (Success). Author stops here and does not include the latest wars.
Chapter 8. Split-Decision Presidents
These are presidents who succeed in getting the second term, but failed to leave their party in power. Usually it is result of second term being a lot less successful than the first. Examples provided are Eisenhower and Nixon, the former relatively successful, but not enough to keep power by smallest margin possible, but the latter completely failed with Watergate making it impossible to maintain power for the party.
Charter 9. Leaders of Destiny
These are presidents who drastically changed nature of the system leaving America after their rule practically different country. There are only three such revolutionary presidents so far: Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.
PART IV: REPUTATIONS IN FLUX
Chapter 10. Republican Resurgence
Author included into this category two republican presidents Reagan and Bush I. It seems to be because these two are republicans and therefore generate strong rejection by historians who have difficulty to accept success of ideologically hostile presidents. Nevertheless both of them seem to get more appreciation over time so their rating will probably improve.
Chapter 11. The Post-Cold War Presidents
This is about Clinton and Bush II both of which managed to get the second term, but failed their party. Obviously it is too early to look at history judgment because not enough time expired since their presidencies.
Conclusion: Clear and Present Danger
Here author discusses success of the office of president historically and difficulties of present time for America. He concludes that it looks like we are due for the next Leader of Destiny to put America in the position to succeed in the XXI century.
MY TAKE ON IT:
It is a nice review of American presidency, but it seems to be leaving out of discussion historical development of the office and change in its relative power comparatively to Congress and Judiciary. It is missing the whole appearance in XX century of the new practically independent power that is, while under formal control of president, in reality become more than semi-independent and probably even the most powerful in in lives of regular people – Administrative state. However I find methodology of defining success or failure somewhat unequally divided into objective – decided by voters in election and subjective – decided by historians. The weakness of second part is in ideological makeup of historians who are bound to be big government supportive type just because it the subject of their profession, which is mainly studying actions of individuals in the office of president. I would like to see additional point of view of constitutional scholars discussing which president strengthened and which weakened constitutional foundation of republic.