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Making a List, Checking It Twice

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call FIle Photo
In his latest book, author Robert W. Merry examines the country’s love of ranking its presidents, noting that the game is far from subjective — even he seems to favor some of America’s leaders over others.

The people choose presidents in the moment, but their choices are evaluated by history. That dichotomy — some might call it a contradiction — lies at the heart of the problem with most efforts to “rate the presidents.” When historians speak, they leave the people out of it. When the people look at their choices in the voting booth, it’s rarely with an eye on what posterity might think.

Robert W. Merry tries to bridge that gap in “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.” 

Merry (a former publisher of CQ, once my boss and now editor of the National Interest) succeeds in his stated task — bringing the real-world verdict of the voter into the esoteric academic discussion about the greatness, or lack thereof, of U.S. presidents.

Turns out, though, that including the verdict of the voters in the equation doesn’t really change the answers all that much.

Merry calls the ranking of the presidents “one of the most compelling political parlor games in the American democracy.”

It’s true that rating presidents is a fun game, and anybody can do it. Just as anybody can come up with a list of the greatest center fielders of all time. 

But all such lists suffer from two main problems — subjectivity and similarity.

Any slightly more than casual baseball observer can come up with Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Just so, every cab driver in D.C. can give you Washington, Lincoln and a Roosevelt or two.

No Honest Brokers

Merry takes the subjectivity problem straight on. 

For starters, he acknowledges that historians are mostly liberal and prefer activist government, facts that are reflected in their rankings.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. launched the modern presidential ranking business in the November 1948 issue of Life magazine by polling 55 historians, journalists and political scientists. He asked them to rate presidents in one of five categories — great, near great, average, below average and failure.

Later, his son, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., took over the family business. The son’s 1996 poll ranked President Ronald Reagan 26th, behind Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

“No doubt the respondents’ political leanings contributed to this outcome,” Merry drily observes.

No doubt.

Merry argues that here is where the voice of the voters must come into play.

Reagan defeated Carter. He won re-election in a landslide. And he was succeeded in office by a member of his own party — his own vice president, George Bush.

These, Merry asserts, are not trivial matters when ranking the greatness of presidents. 

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