James Taranto, editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page website, OpinionJournal.com, appeared on NBC's Today show on June 10 to promote his new book, Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House; the book's co-editor is Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the right-wing legal advocacy group The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. Presidential Leadership is based on a survey conducted in 2000 by The Federalist Society that rated former President Ronald Reagan much higher than had others' previous surveys.
As Media Matters for America previously reported, Taranto suggested a connection between the "academic left" and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib; republished an unverified account of a Vietnam veteran who claimed to have treated Senator John Kerry for a wound he received while serving in Vietnam; questioned Democrats' patriotism after claiming that Republicans never did so; conflated Kerry with communism; wrote that former Vice President Al Gore "has cracked" (following Gore's May 26 speech, which was critical of America's Iraq policy); and, most recently, repeated an unsubstantiated report by The American Spectator's "Washington Prowler" about the Democratic National Committee that relied solely upon an unnamed secondhand source.
On the Today show, co-anchor Katie Couric interviewed both Taranto and author-historian Douglas Brinkley, who is a contributor to Presidential Leadership. Taranto told Couric that the survey was done "to get a balanced panel of liberals and conservatives because past surveys by people like [historian] Arthur Schlesinger tended to be quite liberal and so Reagan didn't do very well, for example he was number 25 in the 'low average' category in Schlesinger's last survey in 1996."
The Federalist Society study surveyed 78 historians, political scientists, and lawyers. According to Northwestern Law professor James Lindgren, who put together the survey and analyzed the data, the similarity of results between Schlesinger's 1996 study and The Wall Street Journal/Federalist Society study is "staggeringly high." According to Lindgren, "The main difference between the two studies is that Ronald Reagan ranks eighth in our study, while he ranked 25th (out of 39 presidents) in Schlesinger's 1996 study."
During the interview, Couric asked whether or not the book's lists of presidential rankings are "kind of a joke when all is said and done?"
The new book, published by Wall Street Journal Books/Free Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), includes the rankings as well as more than four dozen essays on presidential leadership written by conservatives such as Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes; Solicitor General Theodore Olson; former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork; wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, Lynne Cheney; and former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose investigation led ultimately to former President Bill Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives and subsequent acquittal in the Senate. William J. Bennett wrote the book's foreword on presidential character.