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The Morals and Politics of Great American Leaders

by Marvin Olasky

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-684-83449-9
Publisher: Free Press

A work of interpretive opinion, not of fresh historical understanding. The fox, it is said, has many ideas and the hedgehog one. Olasky (Renewing American Compassion, 1996), editor of the Christian magazine World, is a hedgehog here. Unfortunately, his single idea—that we must assess religious beliefs and morality if we’re to understand the motivations and actions of national leaders—is, like many such ideas, unexceptionable and misleading. It’s misleading because it’s only one of many ways to evaluate presidents. Worse, Olasky likens his approach to that of the great historian, ironist, and prose stylist Richard Hofstadter. But while, like Hofstadter, Olasky has written a book composed of portraits—in his case of 13 presidents and other leaders—unlike Hofstadter’s essays, Olasky’s lack subtlety, weight, and often accuracy. What are we to make of a claim that American forces won the battle of Saratoga in 1778 not because of superior skills and the normal turns of fortune, but because the British commander was in bed with his mistress? Or that Woodrow Wilson was little more than a hypocrite? What this book lacks is nuance and balance. Which is a pity, for Olasky is onto something important: that many, probably all, American presidents have been flawed. We need to recognize that fact and to acknowledge that a democratic republic is not likely to have saints for chief executives. We’re also justified in assessing personal character in evaluating and voting for presidents. But are there no other considerations—a president’s vision (Jefferson’s), political skills (FDR’s), or deep moral sense (Lincoln’s)—to bring to bear in assessing the character and achievements of our top elected officials? Must a single approach to assessing presidents—the moralistic one—be used to the exclusion of all others? This book strains credulity by suggesting that the answer is yes. (12 illustrations, not seen) (For another look at presidential ethics, see Richard Shenkman, Presidential Ambition, p. 1784)