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Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians Hardcover – June 26, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“There is no better guide for evaluating our current presidential candidates than this remarkable book. Reporters, commentators and citizens alike should read Robert Merry’s illuminating journey into the past to discover what made our previous presidents succeed or fail. The history is lively; the writing is graceful; the analysis is brilliant.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

“Merry’s intelligent and informed book casts welcome light on this always fascinating debate.”—The Washington Times

“Buy [this] book, take it to the beach, and bring the subject up with the after-dinner drinks. A long and loud discussion should ensue.”—The American Conservative

“It is rare that such a breezy book exhibits both serious intent and skillful analysis…Such grounded reflections make this an unusually authoritative book. While likely to be catnip for aficionados of presidential studies, this will also quickly rank high among serious works on the presidency.”Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Entertaining and likely to teach most readers something new—an especially good read in an election year.”—Kirkus Reviews

"Madison or Reagan? Ulysses Grant or Jimmy Carter? Readers who accept Robert Merry's challenge to rank the forty-four U.S. presidents will learn a great deal painlessly about America's history but may also confront a few uncomfortable biases and blinders of their own. Where They Stand is the most enjoyable of election-year party games."—A.J. Langguth, author of Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War

“Nobody is a shrewder judge of American politics—now or then—than Bob Merry. He takes us down a new path to rate the presidents--and has some fun along the way.”—Evan Thomas, author of Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Struggle to Save the World

About the Author

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.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (June 26, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451625405
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451625400
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #757,188 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I grew up in the little fishing town of Gig Harbor, Washington, but my passion for history emerged during my third grade year in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my father pursued a Ph.D. at Mr. Jefferson's University. There I encountered history in abundance, not least the university itself, so much of it designed by Jefferson. Also there was Jefferson's Monticello, nearby Civil War battlefields, numerous statues of famous Americans going back 200 years. I knew from that time that history would be an important part of my life.

My dad eventually became a newspaperman in Tacoma, Washington, and I followed him into that trade. I was editor of my junior high school newspaper, my high school paper, and the University of Washington Daily. Following a stint in the army, most of it as a counterespionage agent in West Germany, I got a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. But it was always my dream to cover big events of historical sweep. Thus, after two years at the Denver Post, I arrived in Washington, D.C., to become a national political correspondent for a Dow Jones weekly newspaper called The National Observer. It was a wonderful editorial product but a business failure, and in 1977 the parent company killed it off. I was pleased to be invited to join the Washington bureau of Dow Jones' other newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, where I spent nearly 10 years covering Congress, the White House, economic policy, and national political campaigns. It was a great experience.

But around 1987 I concluded I was finished with the political chase and wished to become a publishing executive. Thus I became managing editor at Congressional Quarterly Inc., the Washington-based publishing enterprise specializing in news and information on Congress, politics, and public policy. Later I became executive editor and then CEO, a position I held for a dozen years.

So I had two wonderful career segments -- covering Washington for one of the country's leading newspapers; and leading a fine news organization with the hallowed mission of lubricating the wheels of American democracy with ongoing flows of highly valuable civic information.

Along the way I produced three books. First came TAKING ON THE WORLD (Viking, 1996), a biography of prominent postwar columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop. I sought to use these two journalistic giants -- blood relatives of the Roosevelts; close friends of the Kennedys -- as a kind of window on 40 years of American political, diplomatic, and social history. Next came SANDS OF EMPIRE (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a polemical work that explored the philsophical underpinnings of the ideas driving American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era -- and driving policy, as I believed, in the wrong direction.

And now comes A COUNTRY OF VAST DESIGNS, a biography of President James K. Polk and an exploration of the powerful wave of expansionist sentiment that washed over America in the 1840s. In just four years America expanded its territory by a third and accumulated the vast expanse of Texas (annexed at the risk of war with Mexico), the American Southwest (acquired as a result of that war with Mexico), and the Pacific Northwest (brought into the union after a harrowing round of negotiations that almost caused a war with Great Britain). I portray James Polk, the mastermind and driving force behind this expansionist wave, as a smaller-than-life figure with larger-than-life ambitions. He achieved all his goals, but the efforts of this relentless politician sapped his strength and health, and within four months of his leaving office he died in his sleep at age 53.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Todd Bartholomew VINE VOICE on June 26, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Handicapping our best and worst Presidents is a popular subject with historians and others, with enough books on the subject having been written to fill a small library. Even former presidents have weighed in on the subject. What makes a president great is certainly relative and subjective, and opinions of presidents have often waxed and waned over time. Why an author or historian would want to wade into this quagmire in the first place is a sensible question and certainly as many have avoided it as have delved into it. Presidential historians in particular tend to be either reticent to express opinions or offer them up too freely.

As the song goes, "Ya gotta have a gimmick" and it's tempting to say that of Merry's approach here, but in truth his approach is quite methodical and seems quite valid. Too many authors of this type of presidential evaluation give in to opinion versus empirical facts. And mind you, I've enjoyed many of them but found them profoundly subjective. I've enjoyed Merry's prior books, especially Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop - Guardians of the American Century and was amused when an advance copy of "Where They Stand" was sent to me. Merry comes up with a fairly sensible idea for assessing the relative success of a president which make a lot of sense. Merry identifies three keys to determine their success: that the party and the electorate wanted that president re-nominated and that they completed two successful terms, they consistently are in the upper quartiles of historians lists of great presidents, and that they are leaders of destiny who changed the political landscape and redirected the destiny of the nation.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By T. Malone on July 11, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A presidential year is a good time to write a book about rating presidents. You won't find a better book on the subject than Robert Merry's Where They Stand. Merry writes like a journalist and thinks like a historian. Consider this brief description of Lyndon Johnson:

"Johnson was a big man whose mountainous style was waved around as a display of potency and vigor designed to subdue lesser men. His repertoire of manipulation included deft displays of cajolery, bluster, menace, flattery, thoughtful gift-giving, and subtle political threats wrapped in lighthearted smiles. His instinct was toward big thoughts and big ambitions, all aimed at bringing attention and glory to himself. Many Americans concluded by the end of 1965 that the presidential office had met its match in this unstoppable politician."

It has taken Robert Caro thousands of pages to make the same point.

Merry's thrust is that the academic studies and and other professional ratings of the presidents are valuable, but equally valuable are the judgments of the electorate who voted for or against sitting presidents. Neither judgment is complete without the other. For example, Grover Cleveland's rating by the academics has gone up and down over time, but in Merry's view he is the only two-time loser since he lost a reelection and the voters rejected his party after his second term. It is an interesting observation because Grover Cleveland and Franklin Roosevelt are the only two presidents to win the popular vote more than twice (Cleveland lost the electoral college vote in his reelection campaign).

This thrust is not one that everyone shares.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By C. Griffith on October 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Merry, a former journalist, takes the pastime of rating the Presidents of the United States with some seriousness. I think he does have add a nice twist to the process, by comparing historian's rankings with the electoral success of the presidents or the success of their political parties in retaining the White House upon the end of their legally required or customarily expected two terms, if they made it that far. One tricky bit, nicely dealt with, is how to judge Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt or Harry Truman who became president because of the death in office of their predecessor. Merry judges them on their ability to win a term in their own right and also whether or not their party retained the office for the subsequent term. The gold standard for electoral success is to get elected for two terms in a row and then have another member of your party succeed you; of course Franklin Delano Roosevelt did even better than this by getting elected to four terms and having a successor, Truman, who managed to win election in his own right.

Merry determines historian's rankings of the presidents by reference to 7 polls of historians. Two of these polls were by Arthur Schlesinger Sr, a historian, in 1948 (the first such poll) and 1962. The subsequent polls were carried by Porter in 1981, the Chicago Tribune newspaper in 1982, poll conducted by two historians, Murray and Blessing, that also occurred in 1982, the Arthur Schlesinger Jr (son of Arthur Schlesinger Sr.) in 1996, and a 2005 poll by the Wall Street Journal. The poll conducted by Murray and Blessing was the most sophisticated of these efforts.

In general, there was a strong correlation between the electoral success of a president and his ranking in the polls of historians.
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