The author of the acclaimed biography of President James Polk, A Country of Vast Designs, offers a fresh, playful, and challenging way of playing “Rating the Presidents,” by pitching historians’ views and subsequent experts’ polls against the judgment and votes of the presidents’ own contemporaries.
Merry posits that presidents rise and fall based on performance, as judged by the electorate. Thus, he explores the presidency by comparing the judgments of historians with how the voters saw things. Was the president reelected? If so, did his party hold office in the next election?
Where They Stand examines the chief executives Merry calls “Men of Destiny,’’ those who set the country toward new directions. There are six of them, including the three nearly always at the top of all academic polls—Lincoln, Washington, and FDR. He describes the “Split-Decision Presidents’’ (including Wilson and Nixon)—successful in their first terms and reelected; less successful in their second terms and succeeded by the opposition party. He describes the “Near Greats’’ (Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, TR, Truman), the “War Presidents’’ (Madison, McKinley, Lyndon Johnson), the flat-out failures (Buchanan, Pierce), and those whose standing has fluctuated (Grant, Cleveland, Eisenhower).
This voyage through our history provides a probing and provocative analysis of how presidential politics works and how the country sets its course. Where They Stand invites readers to pitch their opinions against the voters of old, the historians, the pollsters—and against the author himself. In this year of raucous presidential politics, Where They Stand will provide a context for the unfolding campaign drama.
About Robert W. Merry
Robert Merry is the editor of The National Interest. He has been a Washington correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the Executive Editor of the Congressional Quarterly. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The National Review, The American Spectator, and The National Interest. He has appeared in Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Newsmakers, and many other programs. He lives in McLean, Virginia.
The author—editor of the National Interest and former Washington correspondent for the Wall Street Journal—offers two specific criteria for evaluating presidential success: electoral success and the verdict of historians, as recorded by several polls since 1948, when Arthur Schlesinger Sr. published his pioneering presidential ratings. Merry gives the judgment of the electorate equal if not greater weight than the historians’ opinions. In particular, he argues that serving two terms and being succeeded by a president of the same party is a clear sign of the voters’ approbation. A dozen presidents meet that criterion of success, not all of whom (McKinley and Coolidge, for example) get high marks from historians. Presidential reputations shift with time, as well—e.g., Grant, formerly relegated to the bottom rank because of corruption during his administration, has risen in historians’ estimation after a reevaluation of how he handled Reconstruction. Merry also looks at such factors as presidents’ handling of wars, noting that voters want wars to come to a clean conclusion and to advance the national interest in some definable way; by this standard, Truman (Korea) and LBJ (Vietnam) failed their duty as commanders in chief. Most interesting are the “split decision” presidents, whose second term fell short after a promising beginning—see Eisenhower and Nixon. Not surprisingly, Merry has a fond spot for Polk, who accomplished much in a single term and did not seek a second. On the other hand, his high evaluation of Reagan will not sit well with everyone. – Kirkus Reviews
“Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians” by Robert W. Merry
The Washington Post Book Review – July 13, 2012 (Excerpt)
Historians are not generally considered playful sorts. But they seem to enjoy one diversion —ranking the presidents. Ever since Arthur Schlesinger Sr. began this pastime in 1948 in a poll published in Life magazine, numerous such rankings have been issued. In “Where They Stand,” Robert W. Merry, a longtime Washington journalist and biographer of one of our less-prominent chief executives, James K. Polk, examines seven such surveys, beginning with Schlesinger’s, and what they tell us about how presidents succeed or fail.
Whether ranking the presidents contributes to historical knowledge may be doubted. However, as Merry points out, the polls display a remarkable consistency. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt are always at the top, usually followed, in some order, by Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt. James Buchanan, Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding cluster at the bottom. More interesting, perhaps, is how some reputations have changed over time. As historians began to sympathize with the effort to make citizens of the former slaves during post-Civil War Reconstruction, the rankings of Andrew Johnson, who steadfastly opposed racial equality, fell dramatically, while Ulysses S. Grant, who for a time tried to protect blacks’ voting rights, began a steady upward climb. [Read the full article...]
Abraham to Zachary
The New York Times Book Review – September 28, 2012 (Excerpt)
One night a few months ago, my 7-year-old son — who during the Republican primaries developed a mildly obsessional interest in presidential history — asked me to rank the American chief executives in order of greatness. With bedtime looming, I resolved to make it quick. Rattling off the successes (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt) proved easy, as did listing the failures (James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon). But filling in the middle drove me crazy. Should William McKinley place higher or lower than Gerald Ford? Martin Van Buren above or below Rutherford B. Hayes? Yawning, and under pressure from my eager son, I randomly plugged in Millard Fillmore, Chester A. Arthur and the Harrisons and called it a night.
Maddening as this experience was, it was infinitely more pleasurable than a similar task I had undertaken some years ago. The impresarios at C-Span deemed a single numerical figure too crude a measure for capturing something as complex as executive performance. I had to assign a score from 1 to 10 to every president in a profusion of different categories. How did I rate John Quincy Adams in “administrative skills” and “relations with Congress”? Where would James Garfield stand on “economic management” and “pursued equal justice for all”? (We were permitted to claim insufficient expertise in any category, but what would be the fun in that?) [Read the full article...]
THE BLEEDING HILLS
A Novel by Wilfried F. Voss
I have fought a good fight,
I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith.
- 2 Timothy iv. 7
The Irish War is officially a part of history, but not for Finnean Whelan, an IRA veteran of almost 40 years. British Intelligence has produced evidence that he is the mastermind behind a conspiracy to assassinate the First Minister of Northern Ireland. For Whelan this is not only a mission of revenge, but marks the beginning of a journey into the past and the return to the one true love: Ireland. [More...]
The Bleeding Hills is available at Amazon.Com, Amazon.co.uk, Barnes & Noble, and any other good bookstore.