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40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
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. The third and final measurement is perhaps the trickiest and still a bit subjective. But overall this seems a pretty good schema for assessment; after all, if a president can't win a second term how good are they? Throughout Merry also takes into account that people have to understand the time in which a president served, what the voters were hungry for, and more importantly did that president fulfill their needs and desires? How well did the work the levers of power? Reading over "Where They Stand" I found myself repeatedly thinking that not all men truly are created equal. It's how leaders respond to crises and challenges that often make them great. Without something to test their mettle the qualities of a person may not be fully grasped.

So who does Merry pick as the greats? I'm tempted to say you'll have to read to find out as his prose is an absolute delight and his hypothesis is pretty smart. Suffice to say the usual suspects turn up and Merry classified and categorizes them in a fairly appropriate manner. At the pinnacle are the "The Men of Destiny" (Washington, Lincoln, and FDR among them) who completed two successful terms and profoundly shaped the nation's direction. The next group are the Split Decision" presidents (Wilson and Nixon among them), whose first terms were certainly successful and who were reelected only to run into profound problems in their second terms and were replaced by the opposition party in subsequent elections. The "Near Greats" (Jefferson, Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Truman)are an interesting lot, presidents who were reelected but whose ratings and assessments have fluctuated over time as lay people and historians project onto them what they wish to see, and find attributes that take on different meanings at different times. One of the odder categories are the "War Presidents" which clearly doesn't include all presidents who served while wars were on, but for whom the wars they commanded didn't go particularly well or pointed out shortcomings and flaws that otherwise might not have diminished our perspectives of (Madison, McKinley, and LBJ). The failures are a bit predictable (Buchanan, Pierce, and others), but another interesting group are those whose standing has fluctuated (Grant, Cleveland, and Eisenhower). It's this last group that really had me thinking as Cleveland was certainly popular/controversial in his time and remained so for many years. It was only decades later that his star dimmed. Ditto with Eisenhower, who initially was viewed as the calm steady hand on the tiller, only later to be viewed as a somewhat vacuous hands-off leader. The "Near Greats" also point out some difficulty with Merry's hypothesis as Teddy Roosevelt is frequently held up in great esteem by environmentalists and those seeking government to take a more proactive role in the regulation of business. It seems odd to see him in the same category with Harry Truman, a president who was reviled when he left office, but whose stature rose with time only to become somewhat more volatile again. It seems to me he could also fall into the fluctuating category as well as Jackson. Polk is a bit problematic as well. A one term president he's a tough one to pigeonhole and certainly a bit problematic in our revisionist era.

Ultimately it's taking into account that very revisionism and that the way we view presidents isn't static but constantly changing that makes "Where They Stand" such a fascinating read. The stock of former presidents is constantly subject to change, but clearly there are those who consistently rated as greats. It's making sense of the rest that spurs debate and contention. A thoroughly interesting read and one that is likely to spur some debate.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on July 11, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified 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. Merry observes that Germond & Witcover wrote a popular and influential book on the 1988 campaign suggesting that voters made their judgment "based on those flickering images on their television screens." Using intriguing historical information and analysis from two political scientists, Lichtman and DeCell, Mary makes a compelling argument that voter opinions are collectively intelligent and merit worthy. According to Merry the presidents deserving the highest ratings needed to be reelected and have their anointed successor be elected, and be "a leader of destiny" who visualized a new national direction and significantly changed the country. Washington and Franklin Roosevelt are perhaps the best exemplars of leaders of destiny.

But the best part of the book is the writing. In a couple of hundred pages there is a concise and lucid history of the American presidency from its beginnings to the present. In a few short paragraphs he manages to abstract the issues and personalities of each presidential era, which serves as a very nice brief history of the United States. As with all interesting historical questions, there is never an answer, only a movable target that gets more entertaining the more you know. Was Andrew Jackson a leader of destiny? His stock has gone up and down in academic studies based upon changing political views, but he certainly was popular and changed the national direction. Was Ronald Reagan a leader of destiny? Too soon to tell says Merry.

Merry introduces the book by saying "the Great White House Reaching Game is ongoing and endless -- and open to everyone. Wanna Play?"

The answer is yes.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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. Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are invariably the top 3 presidents and all were elected at least twice, though Lincoln was assassinated early in his second term. The historian's rankings can change over time, as witnessed by Eisenhower generally getting a higher ranking in later polls. Merry has doubts about the relatively high rankings that historians sometimes give to Presidents Wilson, Truman and especially Hoover. He has a high opinion of Ronald Reagan and expects his ranking to increase in the future. Speculating on the future rankings of recent presidents, he expects Clinton to do pretty well, while George W. Bush and Barack Obama to do badly.

I first posted this review at goodreads.com
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Robert Merry lays out a comprehensive, but very readable, review of how historians (and electorates) have ranked our presidents. He weaves in a remarkable amount of history that helps put the achievements of each in context, and distinguishes between the judgment of historians and the contemporary judgment of the electorate. He also includes an insightful discussion of the potential legacy of recent presidents, including Obama. (I won't spoil it for you.) For history wonks, there is a bibliography and detailed footnotes.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on July 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover
If you have the slightest interest in American history you should read this book. You won't agree with all of it. No one will, and indeed, the author encourages you to disagree with him. But you will enjoy engaging with him and emerge from the experience wiser. Where They Stand is erudite, thought-provoking and a joy to read. It will reinforce what you already know, remind you of things you've forgotten, enlighten you with things you never knew and help you keep the threads of the great debates about our history untangled. I couldn't put it down.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
You've seen them before, the listings of American Presidents where supposedly unbiased historians rank the Presidents with results you sometimes find surprising or even outrageous. In this fascinating book, author and journalist Robert W. Merry examines each of the Presidents, looking at how they were judged by the voters of their time, and how they have been judge (and often re-judged) by later historians.

Personally, I found this to be a very interesting book. I enjoyed the author's look at various presidents, which was often enlightening and thought-provoking. If you are interested in the past Presidents, then I think that you will find this a very interesting book. I highly recommend it to all armchair historians!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 22, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I've always been very skeptical about books that rate presidents because there is simply too much room for personal political views to skew results. This is a great book because the author took a much more scientific and consensus driven view many sources to come up with his results. This book is part objective and subjective and that's what makes it very readable and extremely insightful. I found his stories about he presidents interestig although there wasn't much new reported. Because this book is pretty new I did enjoy his opinions about the last three presidents and how they "might" be looked upon by historians 50 years from now. In summary, a great book for anyone interested in politics.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
It is a game that many have played likely since the earlier days of the republic, that of rating the presidents on how great each man was as president. We all know the greats such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt and also those at the bottom such as James Buchanan and Warren Harding.

In Where They Stand, Robert Merry takes a look at how presidents are judged in office. The first part of the book looks at the experts (such as historians and academics) who have judged presidents in major studies during the past several decades. However, Merry posits that not only are the experts' opinions important, but so are the collective judgement of the voters of the day.

Merry states his belief that all presidential elections are essentially referendums on the previous four years and that, even after two terms, voters tend to only look at the most recent term. He suggests this is important in judging whether a president can be considered a success or not.

An example of this is Woodrow Wilson who, while re-elected in 1916, saw his party, the Democrats, heavily defeated in the 1920 election suggesting that voters had grown tired of Wilson's progressive idealism and sought a more conservative route for the country. This conflicts with the traditional academic opinion which usually ranks Wilson highly and Merry believes he is somewhere closer to the middle.

He talks about his concept of the "Men of Destiny," that is presidents who are not only reelected to a second term, but are also succeeded by a president of their own party such as Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

This viewpoint is certainly an interesting concept in defining presidential greatness. He says that the collective judgment of voters is less biased than other sources. For example, academics (which he says tend to lean liberal) often do not rank Reagan very highly. He also suggests Warren Harding, generally regarded as one of the worst presidents, should actually be ranked higher because, despite the scandals of his administration, he gave the American people a more conservative course for the country.

The author does make some curious assessments. He cites Bill Clinton as only being near-great because the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, won the 2000 election. This is despite the controversy of the election. He even says a few ballots in Florida would have tipped the election to Al Gore, but hey, Gore still lost. He also notes that John Adams' Federalists were rebuked by voters in the 1800 election despite the fact that there was hardly any popular vote for president at the time so the true will of the public at the time is not truly known.

He also tends to prattle on in some parts without ever seeming to get to the point. This is especially true when talking about recent presidents which, despite the detail, he reserves judgement on.

This was an interesting, if imperfect, book that offers a new perspectives on presidents' places in history. I would recommend it those interested in presidential history.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 26, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
This book is written by someone who is more of a journalist than anything, but he has some interesting insights on the topic at hand. His goal in the book is to discuss the popular game of ranking presidents. He isn't so much interested in establishing a definitive list as he is in looking at how such lists are established and how well they hold up over time. He views it more as a cultural phenomenon than a way to determine truth and as such, he accepts the subjectivity of any such attempt to rank presidents. That being said, he does engage in some ranking determinations himself. The book starts out a bit slowly but it eventually settles into a comfortable pattern of looking at specific groups of presidents in each chapter. After introducing some famous ranking that took place in the past such as surveys of historians or polls by news agencies, he establishes a number of his own ways of grouping presidents, such as those who won re-election and whose party won the election following their departure from office. In any case, as he dedicates chapters to each of these groups, he looks at where presidents have been placed based on public opinion, covers a few salient aspects of their time in office that may have affected their rankings and considers how the rankings have either changed over time or might change in the future.

In addition to the interesting coverage of what has become almost an obsession among political commentators (ranking presidents), there are also some interesting bits of information on presidents or on presidential elections that may convince the reader to do some more reading on related topics. For example, I was interested the mention of Professor Lichtmann's Thirteen Key to Winning the Popular Vote. These are thirteen economic, foreign policy and personality keys that can be evaluated. Supposedly if a candidate has no more than 5 turn against him, he will win the popular vote. This is an idea that is developed in this book as a way to help evaluate rankings of presidents.

This book is a relatively short and interesting read that is worth the effort. Probably it will become outdated over time, but for now, it definitely fills a nice niche in an area of popular debate.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I LOVE this book. It is a free flowing, easy read packed with a lot of history that most of us have probably forgotten. His theory, while basic in nature, is quite sound and it is in the analysis of how the various president's fit into it that we are blessed with all of the historical references. The real enjoyment comes into the picture when it makes you think about what really makes for a good president. We are, after all, faced with this test every time we are asked to re-elect an incumbent. Armed with the long time line of history this is a skill the book can indeed sharpen. The other beauty of the book is that it takes a rather partisan topic and makes it non-partisan in my opinion. I am sure there are some idealogues out there who would disagree, but his blending of both election results (hard facts) and presidential historian polling data (more subjective and therefore potentially more biased) really does buttress the arguement for his analysis. And in the end he does not make any concrete attempt to rate the presidents himself, you are left to your own opinion. The fun part is weaving your way through the analysis. I should point out this is not a terrifically long or in depth book. If you are a serious history reader you might find it too light, but given the task at hand I think it does a nice job for majority audience. And I suspect even some serious history readers would appreciate the way it makes them think about the presidents.
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