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Making a List, Checking It Twice

The people choose presidents in the moment, but their choices are evaluated by history. That dichotomy — some might call it a contradiction — lies at the heart of the problem with most efforts to “rate the presidents.” When historians speak, they leave the people out of it. When the people look at their choices in the voting booth, it’s rarely with an eye on what posterity might think.

Robert W. Merry tries to bridge that gap in “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.” 

Merry (a former publisher of CQ, once my boss and now editor of the National Interest) succeeds in his stated task — bringing the real-world verdict of the voter into the esoteric academic discussion about the greatness, or lack thereof, of U.S. presidents.

Turns out, though, that including the verdict of the voters in the equation doesn’t really change the answers all that much.

Merry calls the ranking of the presidents “one of the most compelling political parlor games in the American democracy.”

It’s true that rating presidents is a fun game, and anybody can do it. Just as anybody can come up with a list of the greatest center fielders of all time. 

But all such lists suffer from two main problems — subjectivity and similarity.

Any slightly more than casual baseball observer can come up with Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Just so, every cab driver in D.C. can give you Washington, Lincoln and a Roosevelt or two.

No Honest Brokers

Merry takes the subjectivity problem straight on. 

For starters, he acknowledges that historians are mostly liberal and prefer activist government, facts that are reflected in their rankings.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. launched the modern presidential ranking business in the November 1948 issue of Life magazine by polling 55 historians, journalists and political scientists. He asked them to rate presidents in one of five categories — great, near great, average, below average and failure.

Later, his son, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., took over the family business. The son’s 1996 poll ranked President Ronald Reagan 26th, behind Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

“No doubt the respondents’ political leanings contributed to this outcome,” Merry drily observes.

No doubt.

Merry argues that here is where the voice of the voters must come into play.

Reagan defeated Carter. He won re-election in a landslide. And he was succeeded in office by a member of his own party — his own vice president, George Bush.

These, Merry asserts, are not trivial matters when ranking the greatness of presidents. 

It’s a refreshing notion: a journalist and writer of history who displays faith in the voter.

“While many of my colleagues on the political beat,” Merry writes of his days as a reporter, “believed the electorate often was manipulated into faulty decisions by negative ads or clever slogans or fund-raising disparities, I believed that the electorate operates generally on a higher plane, sorting out the unimportant debris of campaigns and rendering decisions based mostly on more fundamental questions of national direction and the performance of the incumbent (or incumbent party).”

That makes it easy to see why Merry trusts the voter at least as much as he trusts the historian.

Ups and Downs

Having taken on the subjectivity problem and won, Merry turns his attention to the similarity problem.

As he lays out his criteria for judging the presidents, you begin to see the overlap.

He begins by narrowing the field for potential greatness to two-term presidents who were succeeded by a member of their own party. That list includes eight presidents: George Washington,Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. There are four others who were part of shortened terms who otherwise fit: Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.

Many of those names appear on most academic lists of the greatest presidents. The ones that don’t — Reagan and Coolidge, in particular — don’t match up ideologically with most historians, political scientists or journalists.

Merry also cites Madison and Grant as examples of changes on the margins — both 19th-century presidents have enjoyed a surge of revisionist popularity in recent years.

Even though many of the names remain the same, changing views of history and evolving contemporary standards can alter the ways presidents are perceived by a new generation.

In addition to Madison and Grant, a handful of others have moved up and down on the honor roll — over time Woodrow Wilson’s reputation has declined while Dwight Eisenhower’s has improved.

And, like any other contest judge, Merry is not immune to playing favorites.

He reserves some special venom for George W. Bush, whose foreign policy was skewered in another of Merry’s books, “Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition.” Rushing to judgment, he assesses that “based on the contemporaneous voter assessments, the objective record, and what we know of history, it’s difficult to see him even in middle-ground territory.”

At the same time, he takes special care of James Polk, suggesting (correctly, in my opinion) that the Tennessean is the greatest one-term president in American history. Polk was the subject of Merry’s wonderful history of the 1840s, “A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent.”

Which just goes to show you: Like the Schlesingers and the rest of us, Merry has his favorites and his villains. That’s what makes the game so much fun.

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