July 10, 2008


The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t). By Alvin Stephen Felzenberg. Basic Books. $29.95.

Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter. By Rick Shenkman. Basic Books. $25.

Declare Yourself. Edited by America Ferrera. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $11.99.

      The handicapping of the presidential race every four years is paralleled by a surge in interest in the success of previous presidents – and which of their qualities the current aspirants should seek to emulate. This sort of “great-to-awful” ranking tends to be skewed by the social and political biases of the people making it and, often, by a lack of understanding of the times within which various presidents governed (not many people are thoroughly conversant with domestic economic issues in the days of, say, John Quincy Adams). Alvin Stephen Felzenberg, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University, has come up with an unusually clear-minded and reasonably unbiased approach to the question of leadership quality – and some suggestions on what voters should look for among current candidates to try to determine who has the potential to excel as the nation’s chief executive. Felsenberg has analyzed past presidents (excluding William Henry Harrison and John Garfield, who were assassinated early in their terms, and George W. Bush, whose term is not yet over) in three areas of personality and three of policy – thus making it possible to decide that someone was a good man but an ineffective leader, or a less-than-sterling human being but an effective policymaker. Felzenberg looks at each president’s character, vision and competence, and then at each one’s economic policy, his effectiveness at preserving and extending liberty, and his handling of defense, national security and foreign policy. Taken together, these six areas pretty well encompass the job of the occupant of the Oval Office – and Felzenberg’s system produces some surprises. Only Abraham Lincoln gets the highest rating, a 5, in all six categories; George Washington gets two 4 ratings and four ratings of 5. These are not unexpected results; but then things get interesting, with Ronald Reagan tied for third-highest ranking with Roosevelt – that’s Teddy, not Franklin. Dwight Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant rank higher than many people will expect – and Felzenberg shows clearly why they should. At the bottom of the list is James Buchanan, who has been placed there by others as well; just above him, tied, are Andrew Johnson and Franklin Pierce; and just above them is a three-way tie that includes Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover and John Tyler. It is easy to quibble with Felzenberg’s (or anyone’s) rankings, but this author certainly draws valuable lessons from them for today’s voters – including “watch out for cynicism and complacency,” “stay away from whiners” and “keep away from know-it-alls.” There’s some really good advice in this book, in addition to really good analysis.

      But will voters pay any attention? Not according to investigative reporter Rick Shenkman, who asks Just How Stupid Are We? and answers, “Even dumber than you can imagine.” Much of Shenkman’s book rehashes oft-repeated statistics – for example, only one American out of every seven can find Iraq on a map – and the book’s bantering tone is overdone in a work attempting to draw attention to some very serious issues. So this book gets a (+++) rating – and is that high mostly because it does focus on major issues. Shenkman spreads the blame for voter stupidity around. TV, not surprisingly, is excoriated for giving incomplete and often inaccurate information, usually poorly, despite being the main news source for most Americans; and the educational establishment is blamed for the poor focus of students and the fact that – even though most Americans today have some college – they know less than most people did in 1940, when 60% did not get past eighth grade. Unfortunately, Shenkman’s jeremiad leads to nowhere very useful. He finds the Internet and blogosphere to be hopeful signs for transmission of accurate information – a questionable proposition – and essentially insists that “the People should be forced to face their own ignorance.” How? “If the pollsters paid by the media fail to probe the public’s ignorance, foundations should finance polls that do.” And then? Well, college students should be given weekly tests on current events, with graduation contingent on a passing grade; the fund setting up the program would be called “the Too Many Stupid Voters Act.” But not even poorly informed voters can believe that this proposal (under any name) will ever become law. Unfortunately, Shenkman’s book proves only, for the umpteenth time, that it is far easier to identify problems than to solve them.

      One partial answer to Shenkman’s concerns may be to bring in large numbers of new voters – ones who, ideally, will be more attuned to the problems of modern society and more willing to use their ballots to ameliorate them. That is the concept underlying Declare Yourself, in which stars and semi-stars of the entertainment world and Web explain why politics matters and why young people should register and vote. Shenkman actually points out that the United States now places “a high priority on entertainment,” notably celebrity-related entertainment, so perhaps this book is on to something. TV star America Ferrera (could her name be the reason she was chosen as editor?) talks about the need to “turn apathy into action” and then sets forth similar thoughts from such people as blogger Anastasia Goodstein, comedian Rachael Harris, CNN anchor Nicole Lapin, poet Naomi Shihab Nye, and actress and ex-model Gabrielle Union. There is nothing particularly original in any of the contributions, but the book deserves a (+++) rating just for making the attempt to connect with a new generation of potential voters through some people who may, just may, be able to get a civics message across.

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