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Ranking the Presidents

Author, Robert Merry, is joining the conversation during today's guest spot to discuss his book Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians. The book focuses on the history of the Presidents and ranks the nie great, or nealy great, President since 1948.

Robert Merry argues that the President's shouldn't be judged by historians but by how the electorate viewed them while they were still in office. 

Below find an excerpt from his book and be sure to tune in at 3pm for the full conversation.

Mark Twain once wrote, “It is difference of opinion that makes horse-races.” True enough. It’s difference of opinion also that has fostered one of the most compelling political parlor games in the American democracy—assessing, rating, and ranking the presidents. We do the same with movies, of course, and sports teams and bigtime athletes. But those assessments emerge in the realm of trivia, and few would argue that any lessons they convey could hold the keys to understanding the past—or perhaps even the future—of the American Republic. €e presidency is different because the presidents—just 44�of them in nearly 225 years—have held in their hands the national destiny. “ ‘Ranking the Presidents’ has always been a Favorite Indoor Sport of history-minded Americans,” wrote Clinton Rossiter, a leading political scientist of the 1950s and 1960s, who himself enjoyed the game, even rendering an uncharitably harsh critique of Dwight� D. Eisenhower’s presidency while the man still sat in the White House. (He said the game was “fun to play even on a muddy field and a murky day.”)

As a longtime political journalist in Washington and a presidential biographer, I have succumbed to this indoor sport over the years. Now I propose to pull you into the Great White House Rating Game. It is fun to play, on a muddy or dry field, on a murky or clear day. That’s partly because the game is ongoing and open to all. With horse races, the difference of opinion gets settled definitively at the finish line. In the White House Rating Game, there is no finish line—just endless difference of opinion. I believe that is one huge value derived from the periodic polls of academic experts on presidential success. They spark lively debate and generate in turn interest in the American past. I hope to do the same with this book.

But I’m less interested in who’s up and who’s down in this sweepstakes than I am in what the Rating Game teaches us 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 rating 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? Presidential greatness, then, generally should be conferred upon presidents who governed successfully based on the popular sentiment of their times. As the British scholar Harold J. Laski put it, any president “must see what he sees with the eyes of the multitude upon whose shoulders he stands.”


This is idea had been percolating in my mind for some time when I received a phone call a couple years back from Mark Lotto, then an editor on the New York Times op-ed page. Would I be interested, he asked, in writing a piece for the Times on a recent intriguing remark by President Barack Obama during a television interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News? Responding to her questions on the apparent unpopularity of some of his programs and proposals, the president turned a bit defensive. He said he would “rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” Lotto wondered if I had some thoughts on that, given that my latest book was a biography of James K. Polk, the eleventh president, widely considered by historians to be the country’s most successful one-term executive. Suggesting that I might consider some other one-termers, he mentioned William Howard Taft, a solid executive whose presidency was cut short at one term by the third-party intervention of his predecessor and one-time mentor, Theodore Roosevelt. I proposed instead a focus on an interesting Rating Game phenomenon: that the judgment of history—in the form of presidential rankings by those periodic polls of historians—coincides to a significant degree with the contemporaneous judgment of the electorate. The Times piece, entitled “The Myth of the One-Term Wonder,” ran just before Presidents Day in 2010. It raised the question whether Obama or any president can set himself above the voters with unpopular programs to such an extent that he gets tossed out at the next election—and yet rise to a high station in the eyes of historians. Not likely, based on the record. As I wrote, “A better approach for any chief executive is to assume that, in presidential politics, as in retailing, the customer is always right, and that the electorate’s verdict will be consonant with history’s consensus.”


The point is that presidents who were successful with the voters have tended to be rated by historians as our greatest executives, while those who were rejected by the voters generally don’t get smiles of approval from the scholars. €ere are exceptions, however, and some bounce into the Rating Game with some force. Does Ulysses� S. Grant, for example, belong in the Failure category, where he lan- guished for decades before beginning a slow journey up the register in recent years? What about Warren G. Harding? The mere mention of his name generates dismissive smiles as people conjure up the image of a colorless numbskull whose most prominent presidential qualification seemed to be that he looked like what people thought a president should look like. And yet, as I will seek to show, he gave the American people what they wanted (including one of the greatest years of Gross Domestic Product growth in the nation’s history) before he died in office.


Then there are the presidents ranked highly by the historians who were, however, rejected by the voters. Grover Cleveland comes to mind. Ranked as high as eighth in the academic polls, he was the only president to preside over the defeat of his party in presidential elections not just once but twice (with himself on the ballot in one instance). John Adams similarly gets high rankings in most polls, and yet the voters showed him the door after a single term. I would add Woodrow Wilson, ranked consistently in the upper echelons by the historians. But his two presidential terms, based on voter assessments at the time, could be summed up as follows: first term, a gem of success; second term, a disaster.


Generally, though, the retrospective judgment of the historians coincides with the contemporaneous judgment of the electorate. Aficionados of American democracy can take heart in this. It says that the voting collective, sifting through the civic complexities of the day in a highly charged electoral environment, have as much sense about the direction of the country as academics looking back with the� clarity of hindsight and the cool dispassion of time. This poses some interesting implications that bear upon the Rating Game and on the workings of American executive power. With this book I seek to analyze the presidency through an inter twined exploration of both the academic polls and the ballot-box reactions to the various presidents. I will survey the body of literature spawned over the decades by those intermittent academic surveys, which clearly add value to any assessment of White House performance.


And I will look at some of the more interesting presidential stories through the prism of the historians’ judgments. But I also will look at what the voters were saying, or trying to say, while these men sat in the White House. Did the electorate cut them off at a single term or give them another four years? For two-termers, did the voters then reject the party in power at the next election or retain the incumbent party? What about midterm elections, those weather vanes that catch the winds of political sentiment? Public-opinion surveys also represent an ongoing assessment of the electoral mood, worth consideration in analyzing presidential performance.

All this will be brought into the mix as we explore American history through the prism of presidential performance. As you will see, I don’t place much stock in the personal judgments of individual analysts or commentators (including myself ), except insofar as they contribute to the ongoing Rating Game discussion. 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. Those, I suggest, are the two fundamental indices for assessing the achievement levels of presidents. And they will guide me as I seek to craft this travelogue through presidential history.


This approach has another possible advantage. It militates against any tendency to insert partisan sentiments into the discussion. The voters have elected liberal and conservative presidents, and they have fired liberal and conservative presidents. €us electoral outcomes are not a test of ideology but rather of promise and performance. By concentrating on voter sentiments we keep the focus on performance and away from anyone’s political leanings. I believe, for example, 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. They also�were the only twentieth-century presidents to be elected twice and then maintain party control of the White House after their second terms. In other words, they met the highest test of electoral success.


I break my study into four parts. Part I will explore the academic polls and the literature surrounding them. I believe these constitute the closest we can come to the judgment of history. It also will probe what I call the “vagaries of history”—the occasional fluctuations in presidential rankings brought about through changes in historical interpretation or vogues of thought. Part II will look at the role of the people through a series of chapters on the making of the presidency at the 1787 Constitutional Convention; the nature of presidential elections as referendums on the incumbent president or incumbent party; and the ways in which electoral judgments come into play in that referendum system. Part III explores the test of greatness. It looks at the war decision, fraught with political danger as well as opportunity for glory. It explores the phenomenon of what I call “split decision presidents”—two-termers whose second-term performances led to a White House change of party at the next election. And it dissects those rare presidents—I call them Leaders of Destiny—who were revered by the electorate, have been extolled by history, and are notable for changing the country’s political landscape and setting it upon a new course.


Finally, Part IV assesses the five most recent presidents, whose rankings remain fluid because history has yet to render a definitive judgment.


Some presidents inevitably don’t fit neatly into the broad categories we tend to create in our efforts to bring order to presidential analyses. One is James Polk, who at first glance would seem to bolster Obama’s dichotomy between two-term mediocrity and one-term success. Polk was a one-termer who still captured a high station in the pantheon of later historians (though he has remained highly controversial through history). In nearly all the serious academic polls on presidential success, he makes it into the historians “Near Great” category.* But in fact his story is singular, and he is the exception that tests the rule.


Polk did a remarkable thing when he got his party’s nomination in 1844. He announced that, if elected, he would serve only one term. He not only kept his promise but also realized all of the big goals he set for himself in both domestic and foreign policy. Polk doesn’t fit Obama’s construction because he didn’t lose his reelection bid by angering the voters while courting history. Instead, he consciously bet his presidential reputation on a single term, something that very few presidents have been willing to do. No other president has run on a one-term promise.


If Polk’s exception proves the rule that one-term presidents do tend to get history’s brush-off, who gets its accolades? €e historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1996—in conjunction with his own poll of presidential scholars—that surveys since 1948 have consistently identified nine Greats and Near Greats: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt (usually in that order), followed in various rank order by Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Polk, €eodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry S Truman. Leaving aside Polk, all these men either were two-term presidents or (as with TR and Truman) were elected after succeeding to the White * The historian surveys explored in this volume are those by Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. (Lif magazine, 1948), Schlesinger Sr. (New York Times Magazine, 1962), David Porter (1981), Steve Neal (Chicago Tribune Magazine, 1982), Robert K. Murray and Tim H. Blessing (1982), published in the book Greatness in the White House: Rating the  Presidents  from  George Washington !rough  Ronald  Reagan, Murray-Blessing on Reagan (1988–1990) (published in the same book), Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (New York Times Magazine, 1996), and James Taranto and Leonard Leo (2005, sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and published in the 2005 book Presidential Leadership). House upon the death of their predecessors. All persuaded the voters that they deserved to retain their jobs.


Consider the presidents judged by history to be presidential failures. The historians’ polls generally focus on James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson (who inherited Lincoln’s second term), Millard Fillmore (who ascended to the presidency upon the death of Zachary Taylor), and Harding. Not a two-term president in the bunch. Grant is the single two-term outlier. He presided over nasty financial scandals involving White House and Cabinet officials. It is worth noting, however, that the worst of those scandals erupted in his second term, and his first term was characterized by a frothy economic boom that attended massive railroad construction. Hence, the voters had no particular reason to expel him based on his first-term record, and the historical ranking seems based mostly on his second administration. In any event, Grant’s standing in history is on the rise for reasons we will discuss.


History generally consigns one-term presidents to the category of “Average,” occasionally “Above Average.” €is tends to mean no unavoidable crises, no scandals of consequence, and no serious new directions for America. A 2005 Wall  Street  Journal poll of historians and other experts ranked one-termer John Adams, the second president, as Above Average and then populated the Average category mostly with other one-termers: Taft, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur (who succeeded James Garfield at his death and never was elected in his own right), and George H. W. Bush.


The Journal poll included a couple of two-term presidents in the “Above Average” category—Calvin Coolidge and Bill Clinton. Coolidge, who inherited the presidency and then was elected, presided over the burst of economic expansion in the 1920s, and most Americans applauded him for it at the time. But some historians have argued that his policies contributed mightily to the Great Depression. As for Clinton, it doesn’t seem appropriate to credit a president’s poll ranking rendered while he still inhabited the Oval Office, as the Journal poll did. In assessing a president’s historical standing, it’s best to allow the passage of some history, generally at least a generation. What can be said about the “Average” presidents in the Journal poll is that most were decent and forceful men who demonstrated serious political acumen in rising to the pinnacle of American politics. But they left little mark of historical dimension.


In embarking upon my exploration of the presidency, I confess to one prejudice. I consider the institution to be a work of genius—a unique governmental institution that contains within it centuries of civic experimentation, armed struggle, historical exploration, penetrating political analysis, and philosophical endeavor. It all came together, almost by accident, during that miraculous building session in Philadelphia during the hot summer of 1787. (Both George Washington and James Madison used the word “miracle” in letters to describe the outcome.) It isn’t surprising that the American people take a proprietary view of their presidential office and demand from it an appropriate degree of dignity and solemnity—and success. It’s difficult for us today, with 225� years of constitutional history at our backs, to conceive what a remarkably innovative and novel idea the presidency was. The great kings of the world are long gone now, but in the eighteenth century, at the time of our nation’s birth, they were in their heyday, and it wasn’t clear a mere president could rival the world’s royalty in dignity and gravitas. But Americans, having been handed the gift of the presidency, never doubted it. €at’s because the president is a product of themselves in a way no king or potentate—or even prime minister— could ever be. That is one reason why the American presidency stirs so much interest, respect, and affection from the broad populace—and why, perhaps, so many Americans have always been captivated by the White House Rating Game.


Thus, the Rating Game is more than just a beguiling diversion. It actually can tell us something about how and why presidents succeed or fail, how they deflect or get crushed by history, and the dynamics that bring forth those rare Leaders of Destiny. I will seek in this volume to put forth my own thoughts and observations, whatever their merits, about how the country’s presidential politics has unfolded over the centuries. I do so fully in the Rating Game spirit—and in the spirit of Twain’s observation about difference of opinion. Hence, if your views diverge significantly from those contained in this book, relax. As I say, the Great White House Rating Game is ongoing and endless—and open to everyone. Wanna play?