Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.

Author:Greene, John Robert
Position:Book review

Where They Stand; The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians. By Robert W. Merry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012. 298 pp.

Robert W. Merry, editor of The National Interest and the author of well-received biographies of James K. Polk (A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent [Simon and Schuster, 2012]) and Joseph Alsop (Taking On the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop--Guardians of the American Century [Viking, 1996]), contends in his new book, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians, that "many Americans have always been captivated by the White House Rating Game" (p. xxi). Perhaps. It seems to this reviewer that Americans do not really bother thinking about whether or not Chester Arthur was an average president, John E Kennedy was "Great" or "Near Great," or whether Richard Nixon should be rated higher than Jimmy Carter--at least until it is an election year. Then a spate of articles and short books appear, all of which play the Ratings Parlor Game to a willing audience of political buffs. While it purports to be more, Where they Stand is little more than the latest entry in this generalist genre.

Merry begins his book with a survey of the major scholarly and journalistic works that deal with the methodology of ranking the presidents, beginning with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s 1948 article for Life magazine, and ending with Ivan Eland's Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty (Independent Institute, 2009). Merry purports to have little use for any of these writers. However, as he develops his own ranking system, Merry is clearly affected by the "Great, Near-Great, etc." methodology of Schlesinger. Merry's major categories are those presidents whom he lists as overall failures (Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchannan, Andrew Johnson, Grant, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover); those presidents who were successful as wartime leaders (Madison, Polk, McKinley, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Truman, and George H. W. Bush), and those who failed as wartime leaders (Wilson, Lyndon Johnson). Merry lavishes praise on those presidents he terms "Leaders of Destiny" (the usual suspects--Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt), those who, in Merry's view, combine political adroitness, success in presidential politics, and "political perceptiveness" (p. 164). While Merry resists...

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