WHERE THEY STAND: THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS IN THE EYES OF VOTERS AND HISTORIANS
By Robert W. Merry
Simon & Schuster, $28, 298 pages
History is far too important a matter to be left to historians, a fact that members of that profession have proved over and over. To this day, I still laugh out loud when rereading James David Barber’s pretentious 1977 opus, “The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House.” Having created an elaborate system of psychological types for past presidents, Mr. Barber then brought his theoretical apparatus to bear on the future, designating Jimmy Carter an “active-positive” president and fondly asserting:
“I believe he will turn out to be a pleasured President, finding, as did FDR and HST and JFK, that life in the Oval Office can be fun.” If Mr. Carter would have a problem, he predicted, it would be that, “Like other active-positive Presidents, his character-based troubles are going to spring from an excess of an active-positive virtue: the thirst for results.”
Looking back, it is clear that far from being too much of a good thing, Mr. Carter was too little of not much. In “Where They Stand,” Robert W. Merry, a veteran journalist and respected author of several serious historical works, whom I have known for many years, compares voter opinion to academic opinion and concludes that, on the whole, the people tend to be better at spotting presidential greatness than the professors.
Without giving away too much of Mr. Merry’s methodology, he compares historians’ collective evaluations to voter evaluations by looking at the seven major polls of historians, from one compiled by Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in 1949 through a 2005 poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal. Except for the inevitable “Big Three” (Washington, Lincoln and FDR) results among the historians fluctuate widely, reflecting academic fads and fancies - mostly liberal - of the moment.
By contrast, there is a fairly consistent pattern to the verdict of the voters. The group of 12 presidents who were elected to two terms and were succeeded by members of their own party tends to measure up well in retrospect, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Lincoln, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. The seven presidents who served two terms but were succeeded by members of the opposite party - Mr. Merry calls them “Split-Decision Presidents” - include major figures like Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
With the exception of James K. Polk, who pushed us into the Mexican War and made us into a transcontinental power, one-term presidents tend to be less successful, sometimes because of their personal limitations (Jimmy Carter and Benjamin Harrison), sometimes because of major convulsions in the body politic (the Republican/Progressive split in the case of Taft, the Great Depression with Herbert Hoover and Watergate for Gerald R. Ford) and sometimes a combination of both (fading Federalist fortunes coupled with prickly personalities for John and John Quincy Adams, bad economic numbers and a weak grasp of retail politics in the case of George H.W. Bush).
Then there is the question of destiny. Leaders come and go, but fate is a constant player in the great game of politics. Would Teddy Roosevelt have been an even greater leader if fate had handed him a wartime presidency? Would Abraham Lincoln have been a major president - or even a viable candidate - minus the crisis of secession and the Civil War? The arguments will go on forever, but Mr. Merry’s intelligent and informed book casts welcome light on this always fascinating debate.
Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan.