Jim Cullen: Review of Robert W. Merry's "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians" (Simon & Schuster, 2012)
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
It seems that every few years there's a high-profile survey among experts that ranks the presidents, which usually provides cheap content for newspaper stories and radio broadcasts, as well as a source of cocktail party fodder. In this shrewdly conceived and elegantly written short book, Robert W. Merry surveys the surveys and assesses expert as well as voter sagacity in the presidential sweepstakes.
Merry is a quintessential Washington insider, evident in the white collar and cufflinks in his jacket photo. In addition to White House stints at the Wall Street Journal, he has also logged time at Congressional Quarterly and in the right-leaning foreign policy journal The National Interest, where he is now editor. But if Merry wears his political convictions on his sleeve (you won't be surprised to hear he likes Ronald Reagan more than Bill Clinton), he wears them lightly with the mild skepticism that's the hallmark of the classical conservative (he emphasizes that it's too soon to come to any firm conclusions on such a comparison). As such, he's good company.
Merry's lodestar is the electorate, which, if not infallible, seems to provide a long-term mean upon which historical/political science/journalistic opinion eventually comes to rest. His gold standard is a president who wins two terms and then hands off power to a successor in the same party. On that basis, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt rank as great. Yet this litmus test isn't absolute; William McKinley meets it, but has never really made it to the pantheon. Bill Clinton met it (if you count the popular vote, anyway), but is unlikely to get there. And Jackson, even two centuries later, remains a remarkably polarizing figure whose edges do not seem to have been sanded by time.
The real volatility seems to be on the failure end of the spectrum. Merry notes that U.S. Grant's stock with experts has been rising steadily in recent years (he was always popular with voters). Perhaps not surprisingly, he thinks opinion of Richard Nixon is too severe given his foreign policy successes. Merry finds it hard to accept the low opinion of Harding -- did he really do more harm to the country than Woodrow Wilson? -- but reaffirms collective confidence in the failures of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Merry also sides with the growing number of those who view Andrew Johnson -- another polarizing figure -- as a failure. (As with Grant, the racial politics of Reconstruction loom large here.)
Merry, author of a well-regarded Polk biography (A Country of Vast Designs) usefully develops Young Hickory's anomalous place in presidential history as a declared one-termer. As one might expect, he's relatively sympathetic, though he stints the divisive results of the Mexican War and its role as a direct cause of the Civil War. He also seems lenient on James Madison (sure he got re-elected, but did so before the consequences of his wartime policies became downright embarrassing) and asserts Dwight Eisenhower, whom he regards highly, had no major domestic accomplishments in his presidency (what, the Interstate Highway and National Education Defense Act don't count?). He draws heavily on the work of Alan Lichtman and Ken DeCell's 1990 book The 13 Keys to the Presidency, but never spells them those keys (an odd omission given the otherwise admirable appendices). And the book has a somewhat meandering quality, apparent from a table of contents that offers little in the way of a narrative trajectory.
Still, Merry's geniality and lightly worn sophistication go down easy. This is beach reading for wonks that expertly navigates 44 shades of gray.
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