Recarving Rushmore by Ivan Eland

As a pretty consistent non-voter who often goes against conventional wisdom, a book that declares over half of America’s presidents “poor” or “bad” is bound to get my attention.

The book in question is Ivan Eland’s Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty. Originally published in 2009, an update was published in 2014 to include President Obama. Using peace, prosperity, and liberty as measuring sticks for presidential greatness (instead of attributes like charisma) show whether Oval Office occupants truly left the country better or worse off.

I’m not going to write on every evaluation Eland gave the chief executives, but highlight some things that stuck out.

-Abraham Lincoln: Ranked 29. Eland is one of many libertarians critical of Lincoln’s presidency. Nevertheless, with recent debate on the Confederate flag and what it symbolizes, Eland makes great points about southern heritage: the South advocated federal power over states’ rights when it came to preserving slavery, violated the free speech rights of southern abolitionists, suspended habeas corpus, ignited the Civil War by attacking Fort Sumter, and, oh by the way, practiced slavery. One need not think of Lincoln as a saint to be horrified by the practices in the south. This was an across-the-board horrible time in US history.

-Woodrow Wilson: Eland’s pick for worst president ever. Why this racist war-monger receives such high praise, I can’t fathom. Eland does a superb job bursting Wilson’s bubble.

-Warren G. Harding: Eland gives this much-maligned presidency some well-deserved kudos, crediting Harding’s policies for reviving the economy, promoting peace, and backing civil rights. He puts the administration’s scandals in proper perspective, stating the “money pocketed by dishonest individuals during his administration was minuscule compared to the money the government wasted on legal pork-barrel spending.” He does contend the 1920s were a period of loose monetary policy, something Richard Timberlake thoroughly debunks.

-Harry Truman: Ranked 40. Truman’s imperial presidency included an undeclared war, fueling the Cold War and entrenching the military-industrial complex.

-JFK: Ranked 36. The claim Kennedy called himself a “jelly doughnut” is likely false.

-Ronald Reagan: Ranked 36. Even though I’ve stated Reaganomics did more good than harm, I also contend Reagan is the most overrated Republican president in history. Eland supplies good ammo for that point-of-view, convincingly arguing that the conservative “demigod” Reagan did NOT win the Cold War and providing a good analysis of why Iran-Contra (“selling weapons to a state-sponsor of terrorism”) was a bigger scandal than Watergate. Eland is more critical of Reaganomics than I am, but surprisingly overlooks the collateral damage of Reagan’s revamped war on drugs, damage that still ricochets today.

-George W. Bush: For me, the highlight of the book, as he encapsulates perfectly why this was such a dreadful presidency. For my money, the worst in my lifetime. Even with this takedown, Eland barely touches upon the torture policies and doesn’t even acknowledge Bush’s regulatory record.

-Barack Obama: Eland argues convincingly Obama is in many ways just a continuation of the Bush presidency. He ranks higher than Bush since he’s not launching full-scale occupations of other countries like his predecessor. The newest edition does not cover recent activity such as moves to normalize relations with Cuba and his improved 2nd-term clemency record. Eland rightfully takes Obama to task for resurrecting failed Keynesian economics.

Despite the points of contention listed above, the book does an excellent job of showcasing how presidents consistently fail to live up to the libertarian ideals of peace, prosperity, and liberty. Highly recommended.

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