There is a thin concept behind Where They Stand by Robert W. Merry, an examination of the periodic rankings of U.S. presidents by groups of scholars and political observers. Enough of a concept, maybe, for a magazine story, but not for a book of 200-plus pages.
Merry, a political journalist and columnist, believes there is much that these rankings tell us about the presidency and about what makes a successful tenure in the White House.
He focuses on seven such lists compiled between 1948 and 2005 and on seemingly interesting wrinkles in those rankings. I say “seemingly” because my suspicion is that there is less substance to the exact placement of a particular president on a particular list than Merry supposes.
For instance, regarding Andrew Johnson, he writes:
This post-Civil War president, a Democrat placed on Lincoln’s “Union Party” ticket, ranks in the bottom five in three of the seven surveys employed in this analysis. What’s interesting is that this low ranking emerges in the three most recent surveys. Before that, he was more highly regarded by history, even getting a ranking of nineteenth in [Arthur] Schlesinger Sr.’s pioneering 1948 poll. Then it was down to twenty-third in 1962, thirty-first in 1981, and thirtieth in 1982 (Chicago Tribune). From there he fell consistently to the bottom five.
On one level, that paragraph is an example of the way Merry wordily repeats himself.
On other level, it raises the question of how significant each specific ranking is. (For the record, a chart Merry provides at the end of the book shows Johnson coming in at 28th in another 1982 list, 34th in 1996 and 34th in 2005.)
As a group, these seven rankings show is that Johnson is not considered a very good president. But you probably didn’t need several groups of scholars to tell you that. After all, Johnson is the only occupant of the White House to have to face an impeachment trial, narrowly avoiding conviction by a single vote.
And you probably don’t need those scholars to tell you that the best American presidents were Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Duh!
Does it tell us much that, in 1948, Johnson was ranked 19th (out of 29) and, in 2005, was 34th (out of 37)?
I don’t think so. And here’s why:
Those specific rankings only have meaning if there was a fairly rigorous approach in determining which “scholars” would be permitted to participate. If all were presidential experts — i.e., if all had spent their careers looking closely at each of the U.S. chief executives — and if all used some common criteria in making their judgments, then we might get close to the true historical standing of each president vis-a-vis the others.
However, that’s not the case for at least some of the surveys. Instead of rigor, they gave participants an open-ended question, and let them choose how to answer it.
And none of the surveys, even those that took a more structured approach, relied solely on presidential experts. Instead, they recruited historians who were specialists in a wide variety of subjects, such as Southern history, African-American studies, military history and women’s studies.
Such academics have a narrow field of vision so, if Calvin Coolidge, say, had little impact on the nation’s armed forces, a military historian wouldn’t be likely to know much about him. Yet, that military historian was being asked to rank him among the other presidents.
And how much could we expect that military historian to take into account the impact of Coolidge’s policies on women, for instance, and African-Americans and the environment? Yet, those areas and many more come into play in the job a president is required to do.
A seat-of-the-pants approach
In answering the survey, I’m sure that participants, such as that military historian, have fallen back on the approach that movie critics use when asked to submit best movie lists (or that literary scholars use when ranking the best novels).
You know which ones you think (or have heard) are the absolute best, and you put them at the top of the list. And, at the bottom, you put the ones you think (or have heard) are not very good.
Then you take a sort of seat-of-the-pants approach to fill in the huge, yawning middle of the list.
If you’re coming up with the films for number 30 or so on your list, do you put “Apocalypse Now” ahead of “Ben Hur” and behind “The Matrix”? Does it matter? You know they don’t belong at the top of the list, and you know they don’t belong at the bottom. It’s your whim that, together with what you know about the movies and what you’ve heard, decides which goes before which.
Whim is also at play, I’m certain, when the presidents are being ranked. And, just as with movies or novels, I’m sure participants factor in what they’ve heard about a president with whom they might not be terribly familiar.
Besides, would it tell us much if we could know in some absolute way that Andrew Johnson was at number 30 on the list of presidents and U.S. Grant was number 31? I don’t think so.
The highlight of the book
Ranking the presidents — whether by scholars or by the hoi polloi — is a fun little game, not something to be taken as seriously as Merry does.
He makes a good point that the judgment of the scholars isn’t always consistent with the judgment of the voters of a president’s era, and that a presidential campaign is generally a referendum on the incumbent, even if he isn’t on the ballot.
Merry’s also right-on in pointing out that the historical reputation of a president can rise or fall due to circumstances, such as the publication of an admiring biography or social trends that throw new light on an aspect of a president’s administration.
In an eight-page chapter, Merry tells the story of the creation of the presidency — the highlight of the book for me. A president who stands for re-election after four years seems so self-evident now, but it wasn’t a couple centuries ago. This chapter provides an interesting new point of view from which to examine the presidency as an institution.
Analyzing the presidents
The bulk of Where They Stand is taken up with an analysis of each president’s term in office and how that tenure was judged by voters and by history.
It would have been much better if Merry had written these analyses in a straight-forward way rather than cluttering them with all this rankings super-structure. And if he had been more even-handed. I came away from reading this with the distinct impression that Merry had several axes to grind.
Although he doesn’t provide his own list ranking the presidents — an odd omission — it’s clear that Merry is a huge fan of Calvin Coolidge and, even more, Ronald Reagan. And he doesn’t much like Lyndon Johnson or, even less, Barack Obama.
Throughout the book, Merry often makes the point that it’s specious to try to rank recent presidents because they’re still too much with us. No perspective.
Nonetheless, although he was writing three years after Obama’s election and while the president still had at least one more year in office, Merry can’t say enough bad about him in the book.
In political terms, it is difficult to view Obama’s performance during his first three presidential years as a success….
As the 2011 summer faded into autumn, President Obama and the country he led seemed to be in a beleaguered state. Unemployment continued about 9 percent. Economic growth had slowed to negligible levels, threatening to fall into negative territory….As the campaign year began, improvements could be seen in many of these areas. But it seemed fair to say the president flubbed his midterm exam and was severely admonished by his instructor [the voters]. It remained an open question whether he would get a passing mark on the final.
An inner compulsion?
Where They Stand was published in June, 2012, undoubtedly to take advantage of the high profile of the presidency during the election campaign. Merry knew that, within a few months of the book’s publication, the voters would give Obama a thumbs up or thumbs down.
He had to know how risky it was to rush to judgment on the President.
It would have been much safer for his own reputation and for the book’s future sales if he had said little or nothing about Obama. Yet, Merry went ahead — it seems he had an inner compulsion — to tell what a poor job the incumbent had done.
A major point that Merry makes in the book is the referendum nature of a presidential campaign. And, a month ago, American voters gave the President a high grade — and another four years to lead the nation. In doing so, they unwittingly gave Merry a D or maybe an F.
I don’t know where Obama will rank on future lists, and I don’t care.
He will be a good president or a bad president or a middling one. Future Americans will know.
And they won’t need a group of scholars — or Robert W. Merry — to tell them.
Patrick T. Reardon