I’m interested in politics and live in a borough with an awesome library system, As a result, I’ve read a high amount of books about government, campaigns and office-holders. One of the best has been Robert W. Merry’s Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians. And with President Obama’s second-term inauguration, it’s worth considering what makes a great president.
Merry contributes to the parlor game of ranking presidents or at least sorting them into several categories. His main contribution is to consider the impact of the voters, as he feels that there’s a reason the best presidents are those who were elected to two-terms in their own right. As he describes it (72)
Eight of the country’s forty-four presidents served two full terms and maintained party succession- Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Grant, Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan. Now let’s add those who died during their second terms, with those terms being succeeded by the same party- Lincoln anad McKinley. And finally Theodore Roosevelt. Altogether, twelve.
What can we say about these twelve? First the inclusion within this group does not automatically confer inclusion into history’s tiers of Great or Near Great. But there is significant overlap. Six reside in the upper reaches of the historian’s rankings- Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Jefferson and Jackson.
He has an interesting view of preferring ambitious presidents to moderates, regardless of party. There is still a conservative lean. He likes Coolidge, who is widely considered to be a poor President (it doesn’t help that the economy collapsed within an year of his departure) but who has recently become a favorite of libertarians.
His evaluations can be a bit arbitrary. If Richard Nixon had performed better in the televised debate with Kennedy, Eisenhower could have been succeeded by a Republican. By Merry’s logic, this would have made him a better President. He also considers LBJ to be overrated, and one of his arguments is that Johnson failed to get his successor elected to the White House. But a Humphrey win was plausible in 1968, although it wouldn’t have been because of anything LBJ did.
While some of his determinations can be capricious, Merry is effective at determining how outside forces have affected our understanding of Presidents. He considers the bump Jackson got from Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson, and the boost Cleveland received from Allen Nevin’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage, as well as how James Madison has suffered from Henry Adams’s interpretation of his administration. He also suggests how William McKinley and Ulysses S Grant have been underrated.
In considering mostly the judgement of the voters, he fails to consider some of the accomplishments of the other presidents. For example, John Adams deserves a lot of credit for the peaceful transition of power from an incumbent who lost an election to a victorious challenger.
He pays more attention than most historians to the second terms of Presidents. So that leads to other interesting questions. After looking at Truman’s successes (64) he notes…
And yet all of the powerful successes listed above came in his first term, which Truman inherited at Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. In addition, the economy was growing during the 1948 campaign year. By the calculation of Lichtman and Decell in their 13 Keys, five keys turned against Truman, which was the maximum he could sustain and still win the 1948 referendum.
The second Truman term, by contrast, was a failure by most standards of assessment, and certainly by the electorate’s standards. There were some bright spots- notably, creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and General Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant Inchon landing to turn the tide in the Korean War. But all that was outweighed by a wave of unfortunate developments: the communist takeover of China; ultimate stalemate in the Korean War after China intervened and pushed the allied forces back to the 38th parallel; a series of scandals involving the president’s closest administration cronies; sluggish growth throughout the second term. Hence the voters, in their unsentimental way, tossed out Truman’s Democratic party in the next election.
It could suggest that Truman’s first term was impressive, but it still would have been better had he lost in 1948, and left Dewey to deal with subsequent crises.
The book can inspire a lot of debates. Could Reagan be a leader of destiny as Merry suggests? Was JFK’s term too short to consider him in the higher echelon of Presidents?
I got my brother, a political science major, and my father, a man interested in history and politics who has technically held elected office as a committeeman and judicial delegate alternate, to read the book. So it seems like the type of thing that could be shared with fellow junkies.