Where They Stand
When it comes to picking presidents, voters may do as well as academics.
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There are notable exceptions, of course. Take Lincoln, for instance. For a long period it did not look as if he was going to win reelection in 1864. And Warren Harding was immensely popular in his time but is derided by modern historians. For the most part, however, favorability in the eyes of voters translates into respect in the assessments of present-day academics. Merry takes away from this the happy lesson 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.”Skip to next paragraph
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“Where They Stand” then becomes a fun but enlightening examination of the achievements and reputation of each individual president, nearly every one of whom has seen his reputation fluctuate. Sometimes, as with Ulysses S. Grant’s strong civil rights record, historians have later come to value something the voters at the time did not. Others presidents, such as Harry Truman, according to Merry, have undeservedly seen their stock rise over time as what made them unpopular among their contemporaries has been forgotten. From James Madison to Richard Nixon, Merry reassesses nearly every leader in the light of the views of the voters he needed to persuade.
Not infrequently, however, Merry’s populism is misplaced. His attempt to bump “Give ’Em Hell Harry” down a few rungs serves as an example. Truman’s approval rating sank to the lowest of any president since polling began, as the economy became troubled, the Korean War stalemated, McCarthyism took its toll, and Truman fired the very popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Yet today consensus exists among historians that MacArthur, brilliant though he was, egregiously violated the Constitution’s rules regarding civilian-military relations – making Truman’s move courageous and correct.
Of course, such argument is exactly what Merry hopes to provoke. Debatable as his claims sometimes are, they are always erudite and measured. Impressively, this conservative author even manages to give liberal presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson their due.
Perhaps best of all, the entire exercise is fun. “Where They Stand” won’t end the presidential rankings debate – and it isn’t meant to – but it should provide terrific reading for history buffs.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon.