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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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“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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The book does not debate the assignment of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR as our greatest Presidents, but his results will surprise you by challenging the conventional thinking on where many of the others stand in the rankings. Written in an easily understandable narrative, this book offers a fresh perspective on how we look at the people who have occupied the most powerful position in our country by inserting additional yardsticks into the debate.
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.
We learn a lot about presidents while playing the Rating Game. Mr. Merry's book is as insightful as his delivery is straightforward. His explanations for outliers in various categories are generally spot-on. For example, one term presidents usually don't fare well in the Rating Game. The exception is James K. Polk, who campaigned on a promise to serve only one term. He did, and was able to accomplish an extraordinarily ambitious agenda.
How well does Mr. Merry do in teasing out reliable, non-partisan criteria? Consider an example from his section on "The Test of Greatness". He posits that a strong predictor of greatness is that a president has been elected to two full terms and that his party remains the majority once he leaves office. This formula makes Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt big winners, a result generally consistent with academic polls. Madison, Monroe Grant and Reagan also fall in this category. Although Reagan's presidency lacks the perspective of long-term historical judgment, contemporaneous voter approval bodes well for the Gipper, but did not so much for Madison, Monroe or Grant.
Notable exceptions to this "two full-term with party succession" rule are Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, both ranked highly in historical polls. Teddy Roosevelt almost shoehorns into this category by having been elected vice-president with McKinley, then stepping into the top spot six months later when McKinley was assassinated. On the flip side, Lincoln was assassinated shortly after election to a second term. But voter approval of his legacy perpetuated a Republican Party majority long beyond the dismal presidency of Democrat Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's vice-president. Lincoln is consistently ranked in academic polls as the greatest president, only occasionally falling behind Washington.
Partisanship invariably creeps into academic judgments, but Mr. Merry demonstrates that the fundamental outcomes have not been unduly skewed by political leanings, particularly when viewed in the aggregate. Mr. Merry is persuasive in establishing fair rules of the game, and teaches us a great deal about United States presidents and history in the process.