Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty
© 2009 Ivan Eland
Presidential rankings tend to favor those who were most active, reigning during a crisis or creating expansive new programs that alter the nation’s fortunes. What of the peaceful administrators, however, those men who fulfilled their oaths expertly and restrained themselves from intervening unnecessarily in the lives of the people, or in the affairs of other countries? Recarving Rushmore ranks the presidents based on their performance in peace, prosperity, and liberty, and the results challenge conventional judgments and topple legends. Here the forgotten men of presidential history are honored, and the mighty, humbled..
Eland’s standards view the accomplishments of most presidents as liabilities. Intervention in foreign affairs, for instance, not only costs American lives and destroys the nation’s resources, but typically leads to further interventions as the area is destabilized at greater risk to now-present American forces. To add insult to injury, the wars often profit an elite who lobbied for intervention in the first place. Collusion between the government and economic powers drives, in part, Eland’s continual disapproval of any meddling in the economy, whether it come in the form of denaturing the currency with silver, forcing wage and price controls, or offering subsidies. The economic downturns of the 19th century, when no attempt was made by the government to ‘correct’ them, always proved shorter and less intense than the depressions of the 20th century. Eeland sharply condemns not only abuses of power – forced Indian migrations, civil liberties violations, uses of the military in a civilian context – but failures to protect and fulfill the rights of minorities, chiefly blacks. Eland's perspective is consistently libertarian, but errs on the side of federalism in regards to the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, viewing secession as suspect and offering rare praise to Johnson for his support of civil rights. The author thus avoids the distracting public-relations pitfall of state's rights.
Eland’s measure favors the unknown and scrutinizes the well-publicized, as expected. There are surprises to be found here, however, as he maintains that some presidents are overrated even by conventional standards. Teddy Roosevelt may have had a reputation as a jingoistic trust-buster, but the real work of beginning American Empire was inaugurated by his predecessor, William McKinley. Given the classically liberal stance, one might expect FDR and his New Deal to be utterly damned. His gentle thirteen-year reign takes fire, but FDR was only building on inroads carved out by predecessors. Hoover had meddled in the economy, and it was Wilson who made the presidency an object of fixation and began turning every home into an outpost of the Civil Service. (Wilson holds the inglorious dead-last rank, for the Income Tax, the Federal Reserve, the Great War, his deliberate segregation of the Armed Forces, his abusive crackdown on those who questioned dissent, and more. Wilson commits practically every presidential sin possible in this book, the exception being that he never broke an Indian treaty.) Other presidents who are not unknown, but regarded poorly, actually perform quite well here: Jimmy Carter is designated the best president of the modern era, for instance, for his almost-consistent avoidance of international entanglement, and his deregulation of some major industries. He was also fiscally conservative in a way not rivaled until another Democrat, Bill Clinton, arrived on the scene. (Bill is, surprisingly, "Average".)
Eland has some curiosities as a writer; he refers to Nixon as the last liberal president, for reasons which are never explained. If we are to take liberal in the classical sense, his wage-and-price controls and gold-standard departure would seem to severe him from any claim to that label, and the welfare/warfare model that marks modern liberals was practiced by virtually every president to follow. He repeats the tired old canard that JFK referred to himself as a jelly donut (as silly a claim as Taft being remembered for getting stuck inside a bath tub), and describes Selma as the most violent town in the South, which is based on nothing but the March 1965 assault (The town had no reputation for racial violence before that, and even the Klan was kept away by the city fathers.) On the whole, however, the facts presented are consistent with conventional histories; only the author's judgement differs.
These marks aside, Recarving Rushmore is a most fascinating book, one that turns appraisals of the executives on their head. Even if one disagrees with Eland’s standards for measurement, if nothing else they. This is a text that evaluates its subjects not based on their ability to seduce a crowd, charm the cameras, or ‘inspire’, but on their performance as public administrators. Did they keep the fiscal house in order, ensure the peace and stability that lead to prosperity, and safeguard the rights of the people? If so, they are the model of a Constitutional president, one who allows the American people to be the primary actors in their own lives, the creators of their own destiny -- not simply the tools to be used in some great vision.