Where They Stand: The American Presidents In The Eyes Of Voters And Historians, by Robert W. Merry
An entertaining book that seeks to describe and also participate in one of America’s national pastimes, namely ranking presidents in order from greatest to worst, this book not only serves to frame the debate by setting forth reasonable standards for how a president is to be viewed and the differing nature of the verdicts of voters and largely left-wing contemporary historians, but also provides a look at the sort of qualities that consistently lead presidents to be viewed as great, near-great, average, below average, or failures. The author also summarizes the research of other historians and social scientists in the same general field, pointing to the existence of about a dozen keys, where the loss of five or more during a presidential term appears to lead to defeat for an incumbent or his party in the next election, and gives a thoughtful examination of the qualities valued among presidents, the long-running dialectic between increased and lesser government power that has existed throughout American history, and the disagreement between a largely non-ideological American populace and a historical community dominated, lamentably, by leftist elements, that the author both gives respect to and implicitly critiques for their consistent bias against popular and moderately conservative and conservative presidents that eschew the “Progressive” model of government.
In terms of its contents, the author takes a while to get to his point, but makes it worth the read of about 250 pages. The first part of the book looks at the historians, both in their judgments as well as the apparent contradictions where presidents whose record was not all that great are ranked highly by historians for political/worldview reasons while other presidents who were greatly liked by the electorate are viewed with contempt by historians. The second part looks at the people, examining the debate in the constitutional convention about the presidency, the four year term as a presidential referendum, and the judgment of the electorate as a sign of success or failure. The third part of the book examines issues of war and peace with presidents, those presidents who are “split decisions,” who win re-election but where another party takes power after their second term is done, as well as those few leaders of destiny like Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and perhaps Reagan. The fourth and final section looks at the resurgence of Republican presidents, who tend to be initially discounted because of their political worldview but are on the rise as the vantage point of history leads to more balanced views in most cases, most notably that of Grant and Eisenhower, with a closing section pointing out some of the major crises that are looming that suggest the room for the next president of destiny to develop.
The author is right that playing the game of ranking presidents is a satisfying one. Why is Woodrow Wilson, who was not a great president, viewed so highly by many historians despite barely winning two elections and having his political worldview decisively repudiated by his successors, a record that is closer to Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s than it is to Lincoln’s in terms of overall historical stature. Likewise, how is Buchanan ranked among anyone else, given that his presidency was possibly the worst that could be imagined, with Buchanan lacking any gravitas or ability to handle the crisis of his time. What would it take, for example, for Warren Harding or Calvin Coolidge to receive a fair view, which would raise Harding to somewhere approaching average and Coolidge to the realms of above average or maybe even near great, for all of his sour and laconic ways. In fact, it may be worthwhile to play this game myself, to try to rank the presidents at least into groups, with at least some explanation as to why, in the future, similar to what I did with my counterfactual essay on the list of Confederate Presidents .
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