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Rating the Presidents and Their Raters

Robert W. Merry explores American history "through the prism of presidential performance."

By From the June 2012 issue

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Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians
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.”

To bring it off, Merry writes, Nixon began what was “essentially a retreat, conducted under harrowing military circumstances in the country of war and ominous civic turmoil at home.” And, one might add, a turmoil that was intensified by Nixon’s opponents in both political parties. Those opponents, fiercely anti-Nixon, took every opportunity to try to discredit his attempts to bring the war under control, often undercutting intense diplomatic efforts. This opposition, viewed by Nixon as cynical and unpatriotic, activated a natural instinct to counterattack with equal ferocity, thereby helping bring on the chain of events that would cost him his presidency.

Nevertheless, despite the fierce opposition, Nixon did in fact bring the war to a successful conclusion, albeit later to be negated by Congress, and “broke America’s need to defend that vast [Asian] global perimeter.” Moreover, by “bringing China back into the world, Nixon began a process of bolstering stability throughout Asia—and in the process, diminished the threat of America being pulled into endless wars in the region.”

“This was brilliant foreign policy,” Merry writes. But in the end, “That may be the true tragedy of Richard Nixon—that his greatest achievement contained the seeds of his own destruction and set his place in history for all time.”

Perhaps. But “for all time” may be just a bit excessive, especially when dealing with Richard Nixon, who seems to be kicked around less frequently these days as an appreciation of his substantive achievements grows (especially when compared with our most recent presidents), and those Watergate offenses—and who besides Bob Woodward can remember precisely what they were?—continue to fade into insignificance.

MERRY GOES ON to discuss those presidents he calls “Leaders of Destiny”—Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt—presidents who are “revered by the electorate…. extolled by history; and are notable for changing the country’s political landscape and setting it on a new course.”

Merry believes Ronald Reagan should be included, and one day will be, as witness the book’s dust jacket, which—23 years after this magazine did so—features a Mt. Rushmore that bears his visage. But since one of his criteria is “consistently high rankings by history,” that day is still to come, most likely when the last left-leaning tenured academic is finally relegated to history’s ash heap.

As Merry writes of Reagan:

Ridiculed and dismissed by many upon his election, Reagan proved more adept than his critics anticipated or wished to acknowledge. He restored national confidence, pulled the country out of an economic morass, and unleashed forces that led to the Soviet collapse. His stock is on the rise.

In his final section, Merry discusses the recent presidents. Bill Clinton was “not a great president, but a good one, who presided over robust times and proved adept at comingling his party’s fundamental outlook with the country’s mood. Clinton lacked personal control, which led to a smarmy scandal, and he was unwilling to expend political capital on behalf of bold policymaking.”

George W. Bush failed the war test. In building a rationale for the invasion of Iraq, Bush and his advisers “crafted a war of necessity and a war of success” based on the need to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and curtail its flirtation with Islamic terrorists. However, Merry writes, “the weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist,” and the connections with terrorists couldn’t be established. The argument of necessity collapsed, and “Bush was diminished in much of public opinion for having crafted a rationale for war that was either disingenuous or carelessly flimsy (I believe the latter).”

Here again, as with LBJ, a reader might wonder just how much responsibility should be assumed by a president’s advisers. Bush seemed to have assembled a first-rate team. Whether they provided first-rate advice is another matter.

With Barack Obama, it’s too early for an assessment. But in late 2011, writes Merry, “President Obama and the country he led seemed to be in a beleaguered state”—with unemployment above 9 percent, economic growth at “negligible levels,” a jittery stock market, and a

looming financial crisis of frightening proportions. All this placed immense pressure on the president, whose job was to lead the country out of these interlocking difficulties. His ability to do so would determine his fate in November 2012. It seemed fair to say the president flubbed his midterm exam and was severely admonished by his instructor. It remained an open question whether he would get passing marks on the finals.

Merry’s assessments of our most recent presidents will be of special interest in this election year, when we might be on the verge of another of those tipping points that sharply alter the nation’s course. But his treatment of earlier presidents is also sharp and insightful.

Woodrow Wilson:

A man of sanctimony, Wilson personifies the “split-decision presidents”—those whose successful first terms led to reelection and whose failed second terms ensured they would not be succeeded by a president of their own party. Few presidents were more discredited in voters’ eyes at the end of their tenure.

There was William McKinley,

reacting to events that converged upon him, [leading] America into a new age of imperialism through his “splendid little war” with Spain. Neither the country nor the world would ever be the same.

Or James Buchanan:

Self-centered, devious, dishonest, and cowardly, Old Buck presided over a gathering national crisis that he failed to understand and refused to address. His politics of drift helped render the Civil War unavoidable, and history consistently has him at or near the bottom of the presidential lists.

IN GENERAL, Merry’s ratings don’t differ greatly from the informed historical consensus. At the bottom are Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce. Near the top, he creates a category for “Near Greats”—Jefferson, Jackson, Polk among them—and he reassesses those whose standings have fluctuated, like Grant and Eisenhower, frequently because of political and ideological bias. And in at least one case, that of Warren G. Harding, Merry’s approach suggests that a reevaluation, based on the opinions of his electorate, might well be in order.

Merry also suggests new ways of looking at accepted historical interpretations. For instance, he challenges a basic premise underlying Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s landmark study, The Age of Jackson:

It is not the purpose of this book to sort out arguments for or against particular presidents, but rather to trace their historical standing over time. Jackson requires special treatment for purposes of this discussion…because he represents a pivotal period in our history. Getting him wrong carries a substantial risk of misinterpreting the course of American history. And Schlesinger gets him wrong.

The problem, Merry writes, is that Schlesinger, a liberal Democrat and ardent New Dealer, “began with a mission—to show a connection between Jackson’s politics and those of his great hero, FDR.” However, writes Merry, “The progenitor of Franklin Roosevelt is not Jackson; it is Henry Clay. Jackson represents a separate political tradition, best exemplified in the twentieth century by Ronald Reagan.”

A fascinating observation, neatly redirecting a long-standing current in accepted historical thought, and typical of the informed insights that animate this strongly written and highly readable book.

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).