Historians often viewed the Reagan years negatively after he left office, but since his foreign policy led to the end of the cold war and his economic philosophy led to three decades of growth, it was hard for historians to continue deriding as one of the most influential and successful Presidents in American History. When Reagan died in 2004, many of those historians and pundits who vilified him, eulogized him as one of our great Presidents and many of them often asked, could Republicans use a man like Reagan again? (I suspect that many Republicans agree.)
Steve Hayward, a scholar with the Hoover Institute, wrote a valuable book on Presidents from Wilson to Obama titled “‘The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama’: Grading The Chief Executives on the ‘Constitutional Curve.’” Hayward makes the point that liberal historians write history and activist leaders like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt are often listed at the top of the list of great Presidents, and conservative Presidents are often dismissed or in the case of Harding simply disparaged as one of America’s worst Presidents.
Government activism is hardly a sign of greatness in Hayward’s mind and he notes that many of those Presidents actually diminished our liberty. Hayward viewed not just these Presidents accomplishments but how they viewed the constitution, and even measured their Supreme Court justices. Based on those criteria’s, Republicans are often graded higher, thus upsetting many liberal readers. While many readers may not like Hayward perspectives, he is discussing measures that are often ignored and shouldn’t be. If they weren’t ignored, we would view Presidents differently and might actually have more balance in not just judging Presidents but in advocating policies since much of our policies are often designed based on past historical records. If the historians miss the mark on what is important in a Presidency, it could easily be argued it also has a damaging effect upon policy if we learn the wrong lessons of history.
Calvin Coolidge receives Hayward’s highest mark of the Presidents and for good reason. Hayward states,” 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 graduated from Amherst College where he studied history and the classics and what often is missed from historians’ perspective is both his sense of humor and intelligence. Conversant with both Greek and Latin, Coolidge was one of the most cultured men who occupied the White House. Coolidge even wrote his own speeches and was the last President to do so. Nor can anyone say that America did not prosper with his handling of since he led the country through a period of prosperity and peace. Our founding fathers would view Coolidge as an ideal President.
Then there is the case of Woodrow Wilson, who may be a far worse President than given credit for. Wilson was the embodiment of the Progressive President and America was worse for having him. He was a racist who fired all the black postmasters and screened the pro-Ku Klux Klan movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” plus created a propaganda bureau that some historians consider a model for totalitarian movements that came later in the century. During World War I, no one did more to violate individual rights in the 20th or even 21st century and created a Red Scare reign of terror that far exceeded anything Joe McCarthy ever did or would imagine doing. Contrast how Bush handled dissent with Wilson and you will find Bush was far more a civil libertarian when it came to protecting rights of individuals compared to Wilson. (In his book, Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg noted that Wilson arrested more people for political protest than Mussolini did in his first few years in office.)
His handling of the post-World War I was a complete disaster as he dissed the Republicans whose cooperation he needed and whose modifications to the League of Nation were reasonable. In a book review, historian David Kinchon noted, “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.” As for Wilson’s massive violation of civil rights, Kinshon added, “Wilson’s disregard of the Bill of Rights and the right to protest, led to the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union by Roger N. Baldwin in 1920, three years after Baldwin and others who opposed the entry of the U.S. into the European conflict were deprived of their constitutional free speech rights. That alone will cause many conservatives to despise Wilson! Historians gloss over Wilson’s trampling of the protests, blaming it on his notorious attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, but Wilson, his second wife Edith Galt Wilson and his equivalent of Karl Rove, Col. Edwin House, knew what they were doing.” Wilson made it clear in his academic writings that he disparaged the Constitution in which he swore to defend. If there was President who deserved an F, it was Wilson.
While many would disagree with Hayward ratings of Harding and Hoover, I would agree with Harding’s rating despite the corruption that occurred in his administration. Have you ever heard of the Great Depression of the 1920’s? Of course not but that is because of Harding’s handling of the economy. Harding inherited an economy as bad as Reagan inherited from Carter or Obama did from the Bush with double digit unemployment and, high taxes. You could even make the case that he inherited a worse economy and put together a policy of tax and budget cuts that led to a decade of prosperity. Harding was one of those underestimated Presidents who understood that he was not the smartest guy in the room but he surrounded himself with a strong cabinet including Herbert Hoover, Andrew Mellon and Charles Evan Hughes. His policy worked and when you compared what Harding did with a serious recession with what Obama has done, there is no comparison. Harding showed he was a better President and, if there is a reason this present recession is the worst since the Great Depression, it is because Obama simply did everything wrong to deal with it.
In the case of Herbert Hoover, I am not willing to agree with Hayward since the C he gave Hoover should have been much lower simply because Hoover did the worse job of any President in managing a recession because he turned it into a depression. Much of the New Deal had its origin in the Hoover Administration as he attempted an activist government approach and it not only didn’t work but when combined with the Federal Reserve mismanaging monetary policy, he not only started the Great Depression but his policy encouraged a more activist approach by Roosevelt. Roosevelt was trained as a progressive but ran to the right of Hoover in the 1932 election. Just as Obama ran as a middle class tax cutter and budget restrainer in the 2008 election, Roosevelt ran as a budget cutter in 1932. That lasted as long until he took his oath of office. Hoover became a conservative outside of office and as Coolidge once quipped, “Hoover gave me a lot advice, all of it wrong.” Coolidge proved to be a good judge of Hoover.
In the case of Roosevelt, Hayward discusses Roosevelt’s view of the constitution and noted that like many Progressives then and now, Roosevelt viewed the Constitution as something of an albatross on his plans and Hayward details Roosevelt’s attempt to stack the Supreme Court. There has been a major revisionary view of Roosevelt’s handling of the economy exemplified by Amity Shales book, The Forgotten Man, and the New Deal saw a serious recession after the 1936 election and by the end of decade, unemployment was still in double digits and it wasn’t until after World War II did we see a true recovery. While World War II saw full employment, there was also price controls and rationing so it was a war economy with the fate of the United States at stake. This could hardly be classify as a true recovery. (In fairness, most historians view Roosevelt as a success since he did win the war and many of his policies are still with us. Even conservatives like Conrad Black view Roosevelt years as successes and debate Shales’ interpretation. I tend to agree with Shales’ views but I am not blind to the other side when debating Roosevelt and there are enough nuances to consider when dealing with the New Deal and its aftermath.)
Hayward is an admirer of Reagan, having written a two part biography of the man and let’s be blunt, even if you manage to consider all of Reagan mistakes, there was no doubt of his greatness. Reagan is still influential since much of his policy has proven superior to what is presently being done and highlights the economic mistakes of George Bush including Bush’s spending which lead to a bigger government than he inherited. Carter got his F and deserving of it and Obama is working on his F with all deliberate speed.
There are others that can be debated. Truman was a liberal domestically but his success in foreign affairs led to bipartisan policy on the cold war and Eisenhower stated his two biggest mistakes sat on the Supreme Court, but he was a successful President since he managed America through a time of peace and prosperity. Hayward pointed out the narcissism of Bill Clinton who did do one thing right after the 1994 election debacle, he retreated from his wife’s leftist agenda and moved to the center. Peter Schweizer detailed some of Clinton’s policies on bailing out banks in the 1990’s that would lead to the financial collapse. After 1994, Clinton essentially surrendered to Reaganonmics with budget restraint, welfare entitlement reforms and capital gains tax cuts; something that many Clintonistas fail to mention about their President. And just as forgotten were the Clinton mistakes that would lead to disaster long after he left office and escaped blame.
Hayward dissects the Kennedy administration while giving Kenney a C-. He does his job in demolishing the Kennedy legacy but it should be noted and Hayward does, Kennedy was a cold war Democrat who was willing to pass tax rate reductions that became the model for the Reagan tax cuts. There was a time when both Parties viewed tax rate reduction as an option to revive the economy. The recent Obama deficit commission was a return to the Old Kennedy-Reagan theories that tax rates matter but Obama has pretty much ignored them. Class warfare is more fun for leftists like Obama.
This book is a great read and will challenge how we think about the Presidency. Hayward understood our Founding Fathers had a different view of what constitute greatness in the Presidency. The modern politician using tax payer dollars to bribe voters with their own money and the constant demagoguery that emanates from many of today politicians would have our Founding Fathers rolling in their graves. The recent Obama war on the Catholic Church to force it to pay for birth control pills as part of their health insurance despite being against their beliefs shows that we live in a society in which free birth control is a right and freedom to practice one’s religion is not. This explains why many fear our future and why Hayward’s book should be read by all Americans.