Bill Steigerwald: Who really belongs on Mount Rushmore?

Roundup: Talking About History

No matter what party partisans say, no American president is perfect -- to say the least.

But when historians get around to ranking our greatest presidents, the top spots invariably go to the usual titans -- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin.

Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at The Independent Institute (independent.org) and an expert on defense issues, begs to differ with the standard consensus -- by about 180 degrees.

In his book "Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty," Eland doesn't rank our commanders in chief according to how many wars they won or how many new federal government social or regulatory agencies they fathered.

He ranks them on how well they adhered to the principles of limited government as put down in the Constitution by our Founding Framers -- which is why obscure John Tyler is Eland's No. 1, under-appreciated Grover Cleveland is second, derided Warren Harding is sixth, ridiculed Jimmy Carter is eighth, revered Abe Lincoln is 29th, hallowed FDR is 31st, beloved Ronald Reagan is 34th and progressive icon Woodrow Wilson is dead last.

I recently talked to Eland by phone from his home in Washington, D.C.

Q: Can you give us a quick, "elevator-ride" description of your book?

A: The reason it's called "Recarving Rushmore" is because I believe historians, political scientists and journalists evaluate presidential success based on the wrong factors. They often use charisma, whether the president was a bold activist, or whether he served in wartime or crisis, even if he had contributed to the crisis or didn't prevent it or made it worse. I try to evaluate presidents only on their policies. I try to block out all extraneous factors, whether you liked them or not or whatever, and just go on whether their policies promoted peace, prosperity and liberty and whether they stuck with the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution to limit executive power.

Q: Why did you feel you needed to write it?

A: I just thought the presidential rankings were askew. We just had Presidents Day and a slew of presidential rankings came out and they were pretty much the same as they always are, with FDR, Lincoln, Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson up at the top. Most of the people on Mt. Rushmore. I believe they are wrong in how they evaluate them.

Q: Who would be the four presidents that you'd put on Mt. Rushmore?

A: They are very obscure presidents, and they're kind of boring, actually. But I go on the premise that the American people -- with their hard work, values, etc. -- are the people who really make the country and the government should stay out of their way....
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