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Robert W. Merry explores American history “through the prism of presidential performance.”
Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters
By Robert W. Merry
(Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $28)
Robert Merry is a throwback—a journalist and a historian with no academic biases or shackles; a newsman and a man of letters, who values deep and thoughtful analysis, presented in clear, strong prose; and a writer who understands the primacy of a good story, well and intelligently told.
Merry served as Washington correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and executive editor of Congressional Quarterly, which he built into a widely respected publication, and has written for The American Spectator, New York Times, Weekly Standard, National Review, and the National Interest, of which he’s now editor. He’s also the author of three well-received books.
In his previous book, A Country of Vast Designs, Merry brought James K. Polk and his era to vivid life, resurrecting many of the largely forgotten figures of the period. In Where They Stand, he does the same for a great sweep of American politics, rexamining those presidents whose accomplishments have begun to fade, analyzing why they succeeded or failed by taking into account the judgments of historians and the voters who put them in office.
Since Arthur Schlesinger Sr. initiated his first presidential ratings survey in 1948 by asking a selected group of like-minded scholars to rate our presidents from great to failure, the “presidential rating game” has grown in popularity. In his approach to the game, Merry tells us he’s
less interested in who’s up and who’s down…than I am in what the Ratings Game teaches about how the presidency works and how presidents succeed—or fail—or serve simply in a zone of ordinariness or mediocrity. I put forward just one insight I consider fresh and perhaps even of value—namely, that no ratings game is worthy of the name if it ignores the contemporaneous judgment of the electorate.…Like most of us presidents have a boss—in their case, the American people. And if the boss was happy or unhappy with a particular employee of the past, then who are we—or even a collection of historians—to toss that aside?
Merry’s intention is to “explore American history through the prism of presidential performance.” As a navigating aid, he tells us, “I don’t place much stock in the personal judgments of individual analysts or commentators (including myself)…. Instead, I place stock in collective assessments—the rankings of hundreds of historians through multiple surveys over several decades; and the collective judgment of the electorate as it hired and fired presidents through the course of American history.”
He believes this approach “militates against any tendency to insert partisan sentiments into the discussion.” The voters have hired and fired conservative and liberal presidents. “By concentrating on voter sentiments we keep the focus on performance and away from anyone’s political leanings.”
Merry himself believes “that the two greatest presidents of the twentieth century were Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—one perhaps the century’s most liberal president, the other perhaps its most conservative one.” He arrives at this conclusion, in part, because they were the only 20th-century presidents to be elected twice and also to “maintain party control of the White House after their second terms. In other words, they met the highest test of electoral success.” The people who hired them, in other words, strongly approved of their performance.
Merry breaks his book into four parts, the first an exploration of “the academic polls and the literature surrounding them,” as well as “the vagaries of history,” those changes in presidential rankings brought about by new causes and “vogues of thought.” (Think here of how new attitudes toward American Indians, much in fashion today, have altered contemporary assessments of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s beloved Andrew Jackson.) The second part consists of a discussion of “the making of the presidency” at the 1787 Constitutional Convention; presidential elections as referendums on the incumbent president or party; and the way electoral judgments come into play within the referendum system.
In the third section, Merry lays out his “test of greatness,” one of the most important components being “the war decision.” He also discusses what he calls the split-decision presidents—“two-termers whose second-term performances led to a White House change of party at the next election.” Two of the most notable examples of recent memory were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Johnson’s spectacular crash-and-burn presidency was the result of making the wrong “war decision” in Vietnam—and making it in the name of defending “the vast Cold War perimeter,” a policy rejected by Eisenhower but resurrected under Kennedy, and “fully embraced by many Kennedy advisers retained by Johnson, most notably Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. These men had contributed significantly to the Vietnam situation inherited by Johnson, and it was fraught with peril.”
INDEED IT WAS, and there’s an interesting sub-topic here—the role of key advisers in the success or failure of a presidency. Presidents Grant and George W. Bush also come immediately to mind. But that’s another subject, and as Merry points out, the war in Vietnam, misconceived and mismanaged by Johnson’s advisors, both civilian and military, and by Johnson himself, put the nation in peril—a mess that was dropped directly into the lap of LBJ’s successor, Richard Nixon.
In part, because of the dual mandate Nixon was handed—bring an honorable end to the war and restore peace to a nation ravaged by rioting and unrest—he both failed and succeeded. As Merry notes, Nixon “never talked of winning the war; he spoke of ‘ending the war and winning the peace’”—and by so doing, to put into effect “his grand geopolitical vision, as reflected in the brilliant article he wrote for Foreign Affairs in October 1967.”
This article, Merry writes, “presaged his later overture to China,” which in turn led to the rebalancing of global power throughout the world. “But in the meantime, it was crucial that he prevent a communist victory in Vietnam.” Otherwise, the American presence in Asia would have been attenuated, newly non-communist Asian nations wouldn’t have resisted Chinese influence, “and China wouldn’t have been emboldened to break decisively with the Soviet Union.”
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