Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians
By Robert W. Merry. Simon and Schuster, $28.00, pp. 320
Washington Post, July 13, 2012

Historians are not generally considered playful sorts. But they seem to enjoy one diversion — ranking the presidents. Ever since Arthur Schlesinger Sr. began this pastime in 1948 in a poll published in Life magazine, numerous such rankings have been issued. In "Where They Stand," Robert W. Merry, a longtime Washington journalist and biographer of one of our less-prominent chief executives, James K. Polk, examines seven such surveys, beginning with Schlesinger's, and what they tell us about how presidents succeed or fail.

Whether ranking the presidents contributes to historical knowledge may be doubted. However, as Merry points out, the polls display a remarkable consistency. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt are always at the top, usually followed, in some order, by Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt. James Buchanan, Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding cluster at the bottom. More interesting, perhaps, is how some reputations have changed over time. As historians began to sympathize with the effort to make citizens of the former slaves during post-Civil War Reconstruction, the rankings of Andrew Johnson, who steadfastly opposed racial equality, fell dramatically, while Ulysses S. Grant, who for a time tried to protect blacks' voting rights, began a steady upward climb.

Conservatives have complained, with merit, that presidential rankings reflect a liberal bias among historians. Our profession tends to admire activist, reform-minded presidents in the mold of FDR. Indeed, when in 2005 the Wall Street Journal conducted an ostensibly ideologically balanced survey, there were marked differences in how Democratic and Republican historians viewed recent figures such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The top rankings, however, did not change much. For that, one must turn to a recent list compiled by tea party-oriented libertarians, in which the main criterion for greatness was reducing government spending and the national debt. Harding came in first, Lincoln last.

Unfortunately, presidential surveys do not reflect the dramatic changes that have taken place in the history profession. Even as the ranks of historians have diversified, the overwhelming majority of those surveyed remain white men. Their judgments reflect, in the words of historian Joan Hoff, a "heroic, macho" image of leadership, which is why most of those in the great or near-great categories are wartime presidents. Were more female and minority historians included in these polls, Jackson's standing would undoubtedly slide because of his policy on Indian removal, as would that of Polk, a slaveholder who began an unprovoked war with Mexico.

Much of "Where They Stand" consists of brief accounts of presidential administrations, with Merry offering his assessment of success and failure. The writing, as befits an accomplished journalist, is lively and lucid. Too often, however, the historical context slips from view. Part of the greatness of Lincoln and FDR lay in how they responded to popular social movements — the abolitionists of the Civil War era and the labor upsurge of the mid-1930s. But the focus here is on the presidents. Merry takes note of "workers flocking to unions under the Wagner Act," as though it were FDR's embrace of labor that led to union mobilization, rather than vice versa.

Moreover, the accounts sometimes leave out less-than-praiseworthy actions of presidents Merry admires. He thinks historians have slighted William McKinley, whose victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898 led to the acquisition of the Philippines and Puerto Rico and his reelection. He makes no mention of McKinley's far longer and bloodier Philippine War, which lasted from 1899 to 1903 and suppressed the movement for Philippine independence at the cost of more than 100,000 Filipino and 4,200 American lives.

Merry sees presidential elections as essentially referendums — popular verdicts either on a sitting president after one term or on his record after two. The strengths or weaknesses of the opposition candidate do not matter much. Thus, he interprets Herbert Hoover's victory in 1928 as evidence of the electorate's positive assessment of Coolidge (much more favorable than that of historians) without mentioning Al Smith's Catholicism, which led many voters to choose Hoover.

Merry insists that the judgment of historians needs to be supplemented by that of the American people, measured by presidential elections. "The office," he writes, "belongs to the people." But for most of our history, a vast difference existed between people and the electorate. Had voting not been limited to white men, some elections, and with them Merry's assessments of presidential success, might have turned out very different. Wilson, who introduced racial segregation into federal agencies, would never have been reelected in 1916 had Southern blacks not been stripped of the franchise.

Until the Civil War, moreover, some voters were more equal than others, since the Constitution's three-fifths clause augmented the power of white Southerners. John Adams is deemed a failure because in 1800 "the voters ousted him in favor of Thomas Jefferson." Had not three-fifths of the South's disenfranchised slave population been counted in apportioning electoral votes, Adams would have been reelected.

Merry calls the office of the presidency "a work of genius." As he acknowledges, 2012 seems an odd moment for such a judgment in view of our political gridlock and an outmoded electoral system in which the winning candidate may not actually receive the most votes. Yet Merry remains optimistic. A new Leader of Destiny (his term for the greatest presidents) is sure to emerge to guide the country out of its morass. Perhaps that leader "is already visible on the scene."

Merry does not name him. But it is not President Obama. He flubbed his chance, in Merry's view, by not working effectively with Congress. Could Mitt Romney be the new Washington, Lincoln or FDR? That's what historians call counterfactual history.