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

4.3 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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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: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #984,687 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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.
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