On the theory that experience is the best predictor of future performance, Morris (Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan, 2014, etc.) examines and evaluates, as any hiring committee might, the resumes of 15 men, all past applicants for the job of president.
To judge the fitness for the Oval Office of figures as towering as Washington and Lincoln, as dubious as William Randolph Hearst, and as little remembered as William Henry Harrison, the author uses four criteria: “accomplishments,” “intangibles,” “judgment,” and “overall” (a summary of all the information known about the candidate). Notwithstanding the intentional diversity of his list, a couple “candidates” appear out of place: the otherwise estimable Gen. George C. Marshall was never seriously considered for Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, and Jefferson Davis was elected president, yes, but of the Confederacy. Still, the disagreements readers will have with Morris, his methodology, and his assessments are part of the fun of any exercise like this. As he rates the aspirants, the author turns up interesting little nuggets about each: why Jefferson in 1826 thought DeWitt Clinton was the greatest living American and why Lincoln, too, sought to emulate the father of the Erie Canal; how Ronald Reagan devised his own version of shorthand to deliver his seemingly effortless speeches; why Robert Kennedy and Barry Goldwater were perhaps too hot for the presidency, Herbert Hoover and Samuel Tilden, too cold; how Henry Wallace failed to match self-discipline with his prodigious intellect; why Maine’s Bowdoin College awarded an honorary degree to Jefferson Davis two years before the Civil War; how Wendell Willkie, without ever holding public office, captured the Republican nomination; why the Democrats twice denied their top honor to William McAdoo, the most accomplished treasury secretary since Hamilton. Why wisdom trumps experience, judgment beats sheer hard work, broad intelligence bests narrow brilliance—these considerations, too, figure into Morris’ appraisals.
A timely, amusing, and occasionally eye-opening exercise.