Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians

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Overview

For the 2012 presidential race, the author of the acclaimed and successful biography of President James Polk offers a fresh, playful, and challenging way of playing “Rating the Presidents”—America’s favorite game—by pitching historians’ views and subsequent experts’ polls against the judgment and votes of the presidents’ own contemporaries.Merry examines how and why presidents succeed and fail by recounting the judgments of historians and comparing them to how the voters saw things. Was the president re-elected ...

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Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians

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Overview

For the 2012 presidential race, the author of the acclaimed and successful biography of President James Polk offers a fresh, playful, and challenging way of playing “Rating the Presidents”—America’s favorite game—by pitching historians’ views and subsequent experts’ polls against the judgment and votes of the presidents’ own contemporaries.Merry examines how and why presidents succeed and fail by recounting the judgments of historians and comparing them to how the voters saw things. Was the president re-elected and, then, did his party hold office in the subsequent election?

Where They Stand explores the chief executives Merry calls “Men of Destiny,” those who set the country toward new directions. Contemporaries and historians agree on Lincoln, Washington, and FDR. He describes the “Split-Decision Presidents” (Wilson and Nixon)—successful in their first terms and reelected; less successful in their second terms, succeeded by the opposition party; the “Near Greats” (Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, TR, Truman); the flat out failures (Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Fillmore, Pierce); and those whose standing has fluctuated (Grant, Cleveland, Eisenhower).

This voyage through all our history provides a sometimes surprising analysis of how presidential politics works, and how the country sets its course. Where They Stand invites readers to pitch their opinions against the voters of old, the historians, the pollsters—and, against the author himself. In this year of presidential politics, Where They Stand will have a huge political presence.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
If Where They Stand doesn't realize Merry's announced aim of bringing order to the rankings, it does provide a pleasing romp through the annals of American politics. Knowledgeable about the past, well read in the scholarly literature, Merry is given to moderate and sensible judgments, patiently argued in straightforward prose. At heart, one senses, he is not really a quantifier or systematizer at all and perhaps not even convinced of his own statement that the ratings game is "more than just a beguiling diversion." He simply wants the reader to join him in what is, after all, a favorite indoor sport of history-minded Americans, one that "forever runs parallel to American history."
—David Greenberg
Publishers Weekly
It is rare that such a breezy book exhibits both serious intent and skillful analysis. Merry, a political journalist and James K. Polk biographer, enters what he calls the “Great White House Rating Game” and provides what has often been lacking in the said parlor game: common sense, balance, and thorough, nuanced assessment. He gives American voters a role in determining the relative success of their presidents. Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of prior ratings by academics and others, Merry benefits from his years of observation. For instance, he points out that a strong marker of high comparative ranking is whether voters extend a chief executive’s party’s control of government beyond the incumbent’s two terms. That’s why, he argues, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan must be ranked high on the list, as they always are. Merry also assesses the part played by war, character, political effectiveness, and accident in a president’s place among his peers. Such grounded reflections make this an unusually authoritative book. While likely to be catnip for aficionados of presidential studies, this will also quickly rank high among serious works on the presidency. 20 b&w photos.Agent: Philippa Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (June)
From the Publisher
“There is no better guide for evaluating our current presidential candidates than this remarkable book. Reporters, commentators and citizens alike should read Robert Merry’s illuminating journey into the past to discover what made our previous presidents succeed or fail. The history is lively; the writing is graceful; the analysis is brilliant.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

“Merry’s intelligent and informed book casts welcome light on this always fascinating debate.”—The Washington Times

“Buy [this] book, take it to the beach, and bring the subject up with the after-dinner drinks. A long and loud discussion should ensue.”—The American Conservative

“It is rare that such a breezy book exhibits both serious intent and skillful analysis…Such grounded reflections make this an unusually authoritative book. While likely to be catnip for aficionados of presidential studies, this will also quickly rank high among serious works on the presidency.”Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Entertaining and likely to teach most readers something new—an especially good read in an election year.”—Kirkus Reviews

"Madison or Reagan? Ulysses Grant or Jimmy Carter? Readers who accept Robert Merry's challenge to rank the forty-four U.S. presidents will learn a great deal painlessly about America's history but may also confront a few uncomfortable biases and blinders of their own. Where They Stand is the most enjoyable of election-year party games."—A.J. Langguth, author of Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War

“Nobody is a shrewder judge of American politics—now or then—than Bob Merry. He takes us down a new path to rate the presidents—and has some fun along the way.”—Evan Thomas, author of Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Struggle to Save the World

Library Journal
The ranking of U.S. presidents by historians and political scientists is a well-known and often enjoyably debated subject. The "experts" over the years have examined a number of factors for their rankings. As years and decades progress and the president in question can be examined in further context or with new information, these rankings are sometimes adjusted. Political journalist Merry (A Country of Vast Designs), a veteran Washington journalist, looks at these academic rankings, examines their correlation with the electorate's original judgement, and shows what this correlation tells us about the presidency and how presidents succeed or fail. Discussions about the truly great, the failures, those in between, and some commentary by Merry on the five most recent presidents make for compelling analysis of presidential politics. VERDICT Merry's book should appeal to general readers with an interest in politics or American history. It is one of likely many books on the presidency that will be popular during 2012.—Beth M. Johns, Saginaw Valley State Univ. Lib., University Center, MI
Kirkus Reviews
Rating the presidents is a fascinating game. Merry (A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent, 2009) looks at the criteria and invites readers to make their own assessments. The author--editor of the National Interest and former Washington correspondent for the Wall Street Journal--offers two specific criteria for evaluating presidential success: electoral success and the verdict of historians, as recorded by several polls since 1948, when Arthur Schlesinger Sr. published his pioneering presidential ratings. Merry gives the judgment of the electorate equal if not greater weight than the historians' opinions. In particular, he argues that serving two terms and being succeeded by a president of the same party is a clear sign of the voters' approbation. A dozen presidents meet that criterion of success, not all of whom (McKinley and Coolidge, for example) get high marks from historians. Presidential reputations shift with time, as well--e.g., Grant, formerly relegated to the bottom rank because of corruption during his administration, has risen in historians' estimation after a reevaluation of how he handled Reconstruction. Merry also looks at such factors as presidents' handling of wars, noting that voters want wars to come to a clean conclusion and to advance the national interest in some definable way; by this standard, Truman (Korea) and LBJ (Vietnam) failed their duty as commanders in chief. Most interesting are the "split decision" presidents, whose second term fell short after a promising beginning--see Eisenhower and Nixon. Not surprisingly, Merry has a fond spot for Polk, who accomplished much in a single term and did not seek a second. On the other hand, his high evaluation of Reagan will not sit well with everyone. Entertaining and likely to teach most readers something new--an especially good read in an election year.
The New York Times Book Review
"A pleasant romp through the annals of American politics."
The Dallas Morning News
“First-rate history….Where They Stand is both stimulating and refreshing, particularly in its take on presidents such as Andrew Jackson, Polk and Grant, whose legacies have been obscured by time and controversy…. Where They Stand is filled with almost flip-page observations about presidents that are shrewd and provocative.”
History News Network
“[A] shrewdly conceived and elegantly written short book….This is beach reading for wonks that expertly navigates 44 shades of gray.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin
“There is no better guide for evaluating our current presidential candidates than this remarkable book. Reporters, commentators and citizens alike should read Robert Merry’s illuminating journey into the past to discover what made our previous presidents succeed or fail. The history is lively; the writing is graceful; the analysis is brilliant.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451625400
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 6/26/2012
  • Pages: 298
  • Sales rank: 1,030,306
  • Product dimensions: 6.62 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Merry is the editor of The National Interest. He has been a Washington correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the Executive Editor of the Congressional Quarterly. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The National Review, The American Spectator, and The National Interest. He has appeared in Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Newsmakers, and many other programs. He lives in McLean, Virginia.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Great White House Rating Game 9

Part I The Historians

1 The Judgment of History 27

2 The Vagaries of History 54

Part II The People

3 The Making of the Presidency 91

4 The Presidential Referendum 103

5 The Judgment of the Electorate 129

6 The Stain of Failure 167

Part III The Test of Greatness

7 War and Peace 209

8 Split-Decision Presidents 254

9 Leaders of Destiny 286

Part IV Reputations in Flux

10 Republican Resurgence 333

11 The Post-Cold War Presidents 364

Conclusion: Clear and Present Danger 400

Acknowledgments 409

Appendix A Academic Polls 413

Appendix B Presidents By Category Based on Voter Response 419

Notes 425

Bibliography 467

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2012

    JB

    An interesting book full of facts and helpful information.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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