Is debating the relative rankings of past American presidents a harmless pastime – a topic no weightier than a discussion of the merits or demerits of the best quarterbacks? Or is it instead a dangerous practice that encourages voters to take a romanticized view of the presidency?
Journalist Robert Merry, in Where They Stand, his well-informed new book, acknowledges that presidential rankings are an obsession for many politicos. But the result is not all bad, he argues: These debates generate interest in American history, and inspire us to become more knowledgeable about the past.
In any case, president-rating is not going away anytime soon. In 1948, Life magazine published the first academic survey in the White House Rating Game, canvassing 55 political scientists, historians, and journalists on their rankings. The top three picks, in order, were Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt.
Sixty-four years and many similar surveys later, those three presidents still top virtually every presidential score card. (Sometimes they swap position. Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt have both knocked George Washington to fourth place at least once.) Overall, however, such consistency over so many decades suggests that something more than random adoration is at work.
Merry, editor of The National Interest, a foreign-policy journal, takes academic surveys seriously, but he proposes a novel and more populist approach: that we need to also consider how well-liked each leader was in his own time. More often than not, Merry argues, voter approval and later historical esteem end up coinciding. He notes that James Polk is the only single-term president to ever appear on the “10 best president” lists of historians. “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,” Merry writes.
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.”
“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.