A stimulating look at the presidency from the vantage point of the wars America has fought—and, in some instances, the none-too-noble reasons for them.
New York University politics professors de Mesquita and Smith, co-authors of The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (2011), seem guaranteed to ruffle nationalist feathers with a few of their reinterpretations of American history. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, promoted the federalist policies that led to the Civil War not just out of a wish to preserve the Union, but also out of “burning personal ambition,” his chief aim being to occupy the White House. While George Washington “is perhaps unique among American presidents in not having manifested any great desire for political power,” he also benefited greatly from the revolution in which so many shed their blood. By the authors’ account, the bloodier the hands of the president, oftentimes, the greater the esteem in which he (and perhaps she) will be held. Lincoln, for instance, won the presidency by the tiniest of electoral margins, with a split opposing ticket, so much so that only some 40 percent went to Lincoln; that was enough to carry the race, but we account him great for having led the nation through war. The authors propose an idealistic but not soppy counterfactual: if presidents were prized for keeping the peace, as well as not squandering the public treasure on war, then Warren Harding would top our list of greatest presidents, followed by Gerald Ford and then John F. Kennedy; Lincoln would rank near the bottom of the list, tying with George W. Bush. Even without exhaustive explanation of the methodology, these rankings are provocative, and certainly the authors do not shy from controversy—criticizing Barack Obama, for instance, for “a willingness to back down” in situations that could have done with more bellicosity.
A fruitful if arguable thesis yields a book worth reading in this election year.