What makes a president great?
Academics, journalists, and popular historians agree: our greatest presidents are the ones who confronted a national crisis and mobilized the entire nation to face it. That’s the conventional wisdom. The chief executives who are celebrated in textbooks and placed in the top echelon of presidents in surveys of experts are the bold leaders - the Woodrow Wilsons and Franklin Roosevelts - who reshaped the United States in line with their grand “vision” for America. Unfortunately, along the way, these “great” presidents inevitably expanded government - and shrank our liberties.
As the twentieth-century presidency has grown far beyond the bounds the Founders established for the office, the idea that our chief executive is obliged to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” has become a distant memory.
Historian and celebrated Reagan biographer Steven F. Hayward reminds us that the Founders had an entirely different idea of greatness in the presidential office. The personal ambitions, populist appeals, and bribes paid to the voters with their own money that most modern presidents engage in would strike them as instances of the demagoguery they most feared - one of the great dangers to the people’s liberty that they wrote the Constitution explicitly to guard against. The Founders, in contrast to today’s historians, expected great presidents to be champions of the limited government established by the Constitution.
Working from that almost forgotten standard of presidential greatness, Steven Hayward offers a fascinating off-the-beaten-track tour through the modern presidency, from the Progressive Era’s Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama. Along the way he serves up fresh historical insights, recalls forgotten anecdotes, celebrates undervalued presidents who took important stands in defense of the Constitution, and points the way to a revival of truly constitutional government in America.
“Steven Hayward, one of my favorite historians and writers, has some pretty whacky ideas. For example, he thinks presidents should be graded on their loyalty to their oath of office. Why, it’s just crazy enough to work! Read this book not only because it is entertaining, insightful, and informative but also because it’s the perfect antidote to presidential grade inflation.” (Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of National Review Online and author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning)
“One of the keys to restoring the government to its proper limits will be to have our presidents serve in their originally intended role as defenders of the Constitution rather than undermining it through endless expansions of the administrative state. It is surprising how seldom we evaluate presidents according to whether they live up to their oath of office, and we have Steven Hayward to thank for reminding us of the presidents who understood this and those who didn’t.” (Edwin Meese III, attorney general in the Ronald Reagan administration and chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation)
“Every president takes an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. But how well do they perform this basic duty? Modern historians have mostly ignored this question, but Steven Hayward tackles it head on, grading the presidents of the last hundred years. He’s a tough grader, and his conclusions will surprise - and delight - many readers.” (Michael Barone, senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics)
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