Aug. 22, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

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.

It’s a refreshing notion: a journalist and writer of history who displays faith in the voter.

“While many of my colleagues on the political beat,” Merry writes of his days as a reporter, “believed the electorate often was manipulated into faulty decisions by negative ads or clever slogans or fund-raising disparities, I believed that the electorate operates generally on a higher plane, sorting out the unimportant debris of campaigns and rendering decisions based mostly on more fundamental questions of national direction and the performance of the incumbent (or incumbent party).”

That makes it easy to see why Merry trusts the voter at least as much as he trusts the historian.

Ups and Downs

Having taken on the subjectivity problem and won, Merry turns his attention to the similarity problem.

As he lays out his criteria for judging the presidents, you begin to see the overlap.

He begins by narrowing the field for potential greatness to two-term presidents who were succeeded by a member of their own party. That list includes eight presidents: George Washington,Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. There are four others who were part of shortened terms who otherwise fit: Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.

Many of those names appear on most academic lists of the greatest presidents. The ones that don’t — Reagan and Coolidge, in particular — don’t match up ideologically with most historians, political scientists or journalists.

Merry also cites Madison and Grant as examples of changes on the margins — both 19th-century presidents have enjoyed a surge of revisionist popularity in recent years.

Even though many of the names remain the same, changing views of history and evolving contemporary standards can alter the ways presidents are perceived by a new generation.

In addition to Madison and Grant, a handful of others have moved up and down on the honor roll — over time Woodrow Wilson’s reputation has declined while Dwight Eisenhower’s has improved.

And, like any other contest judge, Merry is not immune to playing favorites.

He reserves some special venom for George W. Bush, whose foreign policy was skewered in another of Merry’s books, “Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition.” Rushing to judgment, he assesses that “based on the contemporaneous voter assessments, the objective record, and what we know of history, it’s difficult to see him even in middle-ground territory.”

At the same time, he takes special care of James Polk, suggesting (correctly, in my opinion) that the Tennessean is the greatest one-term president in American history. Polk was the subject of Merry’s wonderful history of the 1840s, “A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent.”

Which just goes to show you: Like the Schlesingers and the rest of us, Merry has his favorites and his villains. That’s what makes the game so much fun.

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