The Great White House Rating Game

The Great White House Rating Game

Mini Teaser: Robert Merry’s new book explores the academic impulse to assess the presidents—but with a twist. He melds contemporaneous judgments of the electorate with academic polls to yield an engaging history.

by Author(s): Alonzo L. Hamby

Robert W. Merry, Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 320 pp., $28.00.

NO ONE can accuse Robert Merry of thinking small. On top of a long and distinguished career in high-level Washington journalism (including the editorship of this magazine), he is the author of a fine biography of Joseph and Stewart Alsop, a cautionary tract on “missionary zeal” in American foreign policy, and a well-received volume on James K. Polk and the war with Mexico. Borrowing from the title of the latter book, one might describe him as a writer “of vast designs.” His latest work is a relatively slender book about a big topic: the way in which we view and remember our presidents—or, as he calls it, “The Great White House Rating Game.”

Serious attempts at comprehensive presidential rankings are relatively recent and have tended to reflect the views of noted scholars, prominent journalists and eminent biographers. The first such survey was published by Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in 1948; the second also was conducted by Schlesinger in 1962. Both had fifty-five respondents. Over the next half century, several others appeared. Merry showcases efforts by the historian David Porter in 1981, journalist Steve Neal for the Chicago Tribune in 1982, historians Robert Murray and Tim Blessing in 1982, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1996 and the Wall Street Journal in 2005. These were hardly the only such efforts. Neal did another in 1995 for the Chicago Sun-Times, and C-SPAN conducted notable surveys in 2000 and 2009. (I admit with neither pride nor chagrin to having participated in perhaps a half dozen of these exercises.) I wish Merry had included at least one of the C-SPAN polls in his reference list. These were based on ten relatively distinct, if occasionally vague, criteria. Nonetheless, his sample is sufficiently representative of the change and continuity that characterize the ratings game.

Just who gets asked? The answer seems to be mostly academics who have written on presidents or the office of the presidency. C-SPAN drew on scholars who had participated in the network’s remarkable American Presidency series. They likely were about as liberal and Democratic as the academics in Merry’s sample. Most of the professors asked to participate in the ratings game have been intellectual products of either the New Deal or the Great Society and members of a rather cozy liberal, academic establishment. A few contrarians aside, they tended to rank according to their political preferences. Two liberal Democratic politicos—Governor Mario Cuomo and Senator Paul Simon—participated in the Schlesinger Jr. effort.

The years 1981–1982 constitute a midpoint of sorts for the evaluations Merry selected; three were conducted during this brief period. At that point, thirty-eight men had preceded Ronald Reagan in the presidency. However, William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield were not ranked because of the brevity of their tenures in office. Those who grade on a curve might assume bottom and top quartiles of eight presidents and a broad center of twenty. The 1982 Murray-Blessing poll, with its 846 participants, might be presumed to have more validity than the 1981 Porter endeavor (forty-one participants) or the 1982 Neal/Chicago Tribune survey (forty-nine participants), but the variations were inconsequential. In all three polls, one finds the same eight names at the top—Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson and Harry Truman—with only slight discrepancies in precise order. The bottom eight are also consistent—Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, Richard Nixon, James Buchanan and Warren Harding. This congruence seemed to reveal a wide consensus, or at least similarity of impressions, among students and observers of the presidency.

Thirty years later, little had changed. The 2009 C-SPAN poll takes Wilson and Jackson out of the top eight and replaces them with John F. Kennedy (sixth) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (eighth). The top three—Lincoln, Washington and FDR—remain undisturbed, with Theodore Roosevelt not far behind them. The bottom eight display a bit more turnover. Hoover escapes only because C-SPAN ranked and gave a very low slot to William Henry Harrison. Grant, Coolidge and Nixon make it to a low-average rank.

If nothing else, the game proves that scholars and political junkies have opinions—or suppositions—about our various presidents and that these can change somewhat with time. But what are the evaluations based on?

IN 1962, President John F. Kennedy declined an invitation to participate in the second Schlesinger Sr. survey. He expressed his reasoning to Schlesinger Jr., who was serving as one of his White House aides: “How the hell can you tell? Only the president himself can know what his real pressures and real alternatives are. If you don’t know that, how can you judge performance?” Some “great” presidents, Kennedy believed, were acclaimed for decisions to which there was no realistic alternative. Others were beneficiaries of timing. Lincoln presided over victory in the Civil War, then was spared by death from having to manage the impossible problems of Reconstruction. Some were just plain overrated, Kennedy thought. Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy had been a botch from start to finish. And just what did Theodore Roosevelt have to offer in the way of concrete accomplishments? (A strange query that seemed to ignore the origins of twentieth-century antitrust policy, a path-breaking conservation program, railroad legislation, the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Panama Canal and his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.)

Kennedy’s points, however exaggerated, suggest an even larger problem. How can anyone, however learned, authoritatively discuss, occupant by occupant, a position that has been held by forty-three individuals over a span of 223 years? And how can one juggle the problem of performance against the changing capabilities of an office that has grown from a single aide or two to a staff of thousands? How can one compare the presidency of the fledgling republic of 1789 to that of the global superpower of 2012? The only honest answer would seem to be that presidential evaluators are engaged in an imprecise and impressionistic endeavor, albeit one in which it is possible with diligent effort to muster plausible impressions.

Merry illustrates the point well. He obviously is well-read in American history and the presidency but less than comprehensively prepared. His bibliography ranges from authors he (and I) probably first read as students in college or graduate school many years ago—among them Henry Adams, Allan Nevins, Vernon Parrington and Benjamin Thomas—to recent names such as Stephen Ambrose, Robert Dallek, Joseph Ellis, David McCullough and Jon Meacham. He leans toward authors who write serious works for a wide audience. As a research base, this seems more serendipitous than systematic. James MacGregor Burns gets no listing, for example, as either an authority on the presidency or a major biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nor do the younger Arthur Schlesinger’s great, if overly reverential, works on The Age of Roosevelt appear. And surely a book of this sort needs to come to grips with Richard Neustadt’s influential Presidential Power. All that said, the author’s sources constitute a wide-ranging and solid group of studies.

JUST WHAT is his purpose? Adopting a light, conversational tone, Merry asks, “Wanna play?” The game that follows is one in which rules seem to be made up as we go along. But it is entertaining, and many readers will find it enlightening. At no time, however, does the author give us his own comprehensive list of ranked presidents. The exercise seems to be more about throwing darts (or javelins) at the evaluations of others. Many of the impalements seem well deserved.

Perhaps Merry’s most impressive achievement is an eight-page chapter entitled “The Making of the Presidency,” which explains the origins of the office at the Constitutional Convention. Our Founding Fathers, he tells us, created a chief executive who was less than an absolute monarch but more than a prime minister. Drawing authority directly from the people (as filtered through the mechanism of the Electoral College), the president was independent of the Congress and possessed the moral authority of a democratic mandate, albeit through a mode of selection that presumably would reject a Caesarist demagogue.

“What emerged was a matrix of shared powers binding the two branches and forcing them to work together in the course of governing,” he tells us. He also quotes Woodrow Wilson’s observation that if a president can win the admiration and confidence of the country, “no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him. . . . If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible.”

Such an achievement, Merry tells us, would be immensely difficult, but its possibility would be the essence of a challenge “that has beckoned and diminished and elevated so many ambitious and forceful Americans absorbed by the call of destiny and the lure of greatness.” Surely, it was a challenge successfully met by most of the presidents who have been labeled great.

Merry’s fundamental approach to presidential achievement is a “referendum” touchstone. The judgment of scholars and journalists, burdened by political and ideological commitments, attempting to burrow from the present into a distant past, he asserts, is less useful than the contemporary verdict of the people themselves. Reprimanding journalists who cover election campaigns by emphasizing tactics and ephemeral day-to-day events, he believes that the electorate takes a broad view. Presidential elections, he argues, are usually decided on the basis of approval or disapproval of the incumbent’s performance. A president who is reelected thus has a presumptive claim to a superior ranking. A two-term president whose designated party successor wins election has to be considered for greatness. Still, the twelve who have met this criterion—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—will strike most of us as a mixed lot.

IN THE chapters that follow, Merry rakes over the reputations of numerous presidents, giving us his own take on what the historians got right and unhesitatingly telling us when he thinks they erred.

Take the conventional view of James Madison, customarily revered as the father of the Constitution but dismissed as at most a mediocre chief executive incapable of exerting the strong presidential leadership exemplified by his friend and predecessor Thomas Jefferson. In large measure, Merry tells us, Madison was the victim of a hit job by Henry Adams—great-grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy Adams—in his magisterial History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Madison, as Merry sees him, was a resolute defender of American rights against British encroachment on the high seas and a determined foe of British designs to seize control of the northwestern United States. He was a principled Jeffersonian liberal who waged the War of 1812 without persecuting its opponents and a flexible pragmatist willing to back those elements of the opposition agenda (such as a national bank and a mild protective tariff) he thought the country needed.

Or how about Ulysses S. Grant, rated dead last alongside Warren G. Harding in Schlesinger Sr.’s 1948 survey but the beneficiary of a “miniboomlet” in more recent years? (The 2009 C-SPAN survey placed him twenty-third, squarely in the middling category.) Merry attributes this to a current trend in academic liberalism that lauds rather than condemns Radical Reconstruction and points to recent favorable biographies. Presidential surveys do in fact reflect changing fashions in academic liberalism, and Grant is an excellent case study of a process worth a bit more attention.

For at least three-quarters of a century, American populism and progressivism bought into fundamental intellectual and cultural compromises that reunited the nation after the Civil War. In return for Southern acquiescence in the maintenance of the Union and the canonization of Abraham Lincoln, a Northern intelligentsia accepted the Confederacy as an honorable, if misguided, insurgency, accepted the proposition that blacks were not and might never be ready for full citizenship, and conceded that Radical Reconstruction was an especially odious form of Northern oppression. The martyred Lincoln was off limits, but Grant was a convenient scapegoat. As commander of the Union forces, he had enabled Sherman’s march through Georgia and compelled Lee’s surrender. As president, he was the chief enforcer of Reconstruction and suppressor of the Ku Klux Klan.

Northern intellectuals could buy into these complaints with few qualms while detesting the rampant industrialization of America during the Gilded Age and the rise of a crass new elite concerned only with money and power. Here also, one finds the hand of that displaced patrician Henry Adams holding a bloody dagger: “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

This worldview in which Grant’s reputation was caught up changed slowly. It was not until the 1960s that major cracks began to appear as liberal intellectuals committed themselves more fully to civil rights and a revolutionary change in a racist Southern society. It became possible to see the Grant presidency as a mixed achievement—its first term was marked by an economic prosperity that grew out of the industrial surge the Henry Adamses of the world found distasteful; its second term was marred by a financial crash and the emergence of scandals Grant handled poorly. To probably a majority of Americans, however, Grant remained a hero who likely could have had a third term had he chosen to run for one.

Merry concludes, fairly enough, that a judicious evaluation of Grant’s successes and failures would merit an average standing. He also underscores another, more urgent motivation for Grant’srise when he quotes Princeton historian Sean Wilentz’s defense of the general as “one of the great presidents of his era, and possibly one of the greatest in all American history.” Professor Wilentz was contesting a suggestion that Grant should be evicted from the fifty-dollar bill and replaced by Ronald Reagan.

Grant’s one-time partner at the bottom of the heap, Warren G. Harding, also gets a case for a qualified upgrade. Some of his appointments were corrupt or mediocre, but others were outstanding. Inheriting a severe recession from Woodrow Wilson, he allowed the economy to heal itself and was presiding over a strong recovery at the time of his death in 1923. It is widely conceded that he was a popular chief executive. Only afterwards did the Teapot Dome scandal and other examples of bad behavior by his appointees besmirch his reputation.

Merry mentions in passing Harding’s alleged affair with Nan Britton, who claimed after his death that Harding was the father of a daughter they had conceived during a tryst in a White House broom closet. He also tells us that Harding had one long-running extramarital affair before he became president, but he seems to have broken that off prior to his nomination. (His backers financed a leisurely trip to Japan for the lady in question, Carrie Phillips; it took her out of the country for the duration of the 1920 campaign.) As for Britton, historians have failed to discover any tangible evidence for her claim, which, even if true, would make Harding seem positively monogamous compared to John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson or Bill Clinton. No matter, Merry concludes. Fairly or otherwise, “Harding’s position in history probably won’t change anytime soon, notwithstanding his high regard with his constituency during his presidency.”

The case for Calvin Coolidge’s consistently below-average evaluation, the author believes, is very weak. “He presided over peace, prosperity, and domestic tranquility for nearly six years, and he effectively cleaned up the scandal bequeathed to him by Harding.” Coolidge, he suggests, was a victim of his own laconic personality and his rejection of presidential activism. Recent polls may reflect Merry’s sense that “Silent Cal” has been underrated; the Wall Street Journal (2005) and C-SPAN (2009) give him an average standing.

WHO, THEN, were the real failures? Merry writes at some length about Herbert Hoover, conceding his many virtues and talents but stoutly rejecting “average” evaluations in five of the seven surveys this book spotlights. He believes Hoover helped bring on the Great Depression by signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff, made it worse with stiff tax increases and was overwhelmed by the tidal waves of bank failures that brought the economy crashing down. Much of the personal vilification he received was unfair, but “American presidential politics wasn’t designed to be fair. . . . In times of turmoil the people can become harsh and unfeeling in their sentiments.” Their contemporary judgment, “brutal and insensitive as it was, captures the man’s performance more accurately than those academic surveys.”

Lincoln’s two predecessors, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, widely classified in the failure category, seem to Merry easy calls. Both men, through a combination of inactivity and deviousness, facilitated the outbreak of the Civil War. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, long was a beneficiary of the post–Civil War worldview and considered a victim of persecution by vindictive Radical Republicans. Merry thinks he probably belongs in the failure category, “in part, it can be argued, because he was on the wrong side of the issues but also because he lost control of the country he was supposed to lead.”

Most surprisingly, Merry suggests serious consideration of Woodrow Wilson, an almost universal “near-great” pick, for a “failure” designation. His argument bypasses Wilson’s impressive progressive accomplishments on the domestic scene and focuses on his diplomacy, which he finds seriously flawed by a sanctimonious self-righteousness: Wilson took the United States into World War I with a faulty rationale, then refused to compromise on an impractical peace settlement. (He finds a similar pattern in the presidency of George W. Bush.)

In general, the author believes foreign policy must focus on the world as it is and advocates the pursuit of national self-interest, even if (as with James K. Polk or William McKinley) it leads into naked imperialism. Who today would seriously propose the return of the southwestern United States to Mexico, or national independence for Hawaii or Puerto Rico?

WHO WERE the greats, and how do we discern them? Here things seem to get a bit mushy. Merry avoids the term “great.” Instead, he lists six “Leaders of Destiny” who possessed premier qualities of political perceptiveness, a broad transformative vision and political adroitness. They are the standouts of the dozen presidents who served two terms and were succeeded by a member of their own party: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Early in the book, the author identifies FDR and Ronald Reagan as the two greatest presidents of the twentieth century and tells us near the end that he personally believes that Reagan was a Leader of Destiny. All the same, he punts on applying the label and comments that “history has yet to render a clear judgment on his place in the presidential pantheon.” Why, then, all the other challenges to conventional ratings wisdom throughout this book?

The six “Destinarians” were perennial choices as great or near great in the various polls referenced, yet they are too prominent to require detailed discussion. Two have slid a bit in recent years. The C-SPAN polls of 2000 and 2009 both rate Jefferson seventh, an adjustment that probably reflects growing awareness of the disastrous nature of his second term. They also put Andrew Jackson at thirteenth, likely a reaction springing from growing consciousness of both the way in which he ruthlessly persecuted Native Americans and the damage done by his primitive policies regarding money and finance.

One phenomenon cuts across the author’s categories—the difficulty of serving two unblemished terms. Nineteen men have served more than one term as president. Their collective experience demonstrates that it is very difficult to negotiate more than four years in the office without significant challenges.

Consider Jefferson, whose first term was marked by the Louisiana Purchase and a general sense of national progress. He was reelected overwhelmingly but saw his second term engulfed in the maritime tensions with England that grew out of the Napoleonic wars. Or take his designated successor, Madison, who, Merry’s stout defense notwithstanding, was dragged into a war that went badly in many ways—the failed invasion of Canada, serious losses at sea, the British raid on Washington, the near secession of New England—until the successful defense of Baltimore and Andrew Jackson’s triumph at New Orleans provided an appearance of victory.

Move up three-quarters of a century to Grover Cleveland’s second term and the severe economic depression that broke out just months after his inauguration, leaving him presiding over national misery for the remainder of his presidency and repudiated by his own party in favor of William Jennings Bryan.

Or fast-forward to Woodrow Wilson, who brought the progressive movement to a peak during his first term (an achievement considerably undervalued by Merry), won reelection, and then found himself taking the nation into a war for which it was unprepared and that he handled poorly. Or Franklin D. Roosevelt, who seemed at the end of his first term on the way to beating the Great Depression and transforming American politics, only to see his second term give rise to a new economic collapse and the folly of the court-packing plan.

Or Harry Truman, who, after initial stumbles, committed the United States to containment of the Soviet Union and the Marshall Plan, backed civil rights more strongly than any Democratic president before him and won election in his own right only to be caught up in the Korean stalemate, McCarthyism and small-bore scandals. (Merry, I think, exaggerates when he categorizes Truman as a failed war president. It is fair to say his administration bungled policy toward Korea before the North Koreans invaded, but today’s free and prosperous South Korea provides sufficient moral vindication for Truman’s decision to go to war. A political failure is not necessarily a historical one.)

Some second-termers who ran into trouble—Nixon and Clinton come to mind—need only look in the mirror to affix the blame. Others were capable men blindsided by events beyond their control. Popular majorities rarely make distinctions. Historians should. Most presidencies of consequence are mixtures of failure and achievements that require a difficult sorting out.

In the nature of things, Merry cannot—and should not—attempt a summary discussion of every single president, but he at least touches on most of them. One omission, however, is extraordinarily puzzling. He says next to nothing about John F. Kennedy, telling us that JFK “never had a chance to leave a substantial stamp upon the nation.”

Is that really the case? Kennedy was among the most charismatic of presidents, provided exemplary leadership through the most dangerous nuclear confrontation in human history and aligned the Democratic Party squarely with the cause of full civil rights for African Americans. He was in office for nearly three years. His death was a national trauma. Three generations later, his party has failed to produce a leader with a similar combination of substance and popular appeal. General public-opinion surveys tend to rank him among the greatest ever. The C-SPAN respondents, mostly academics, placed him eighth in 2000 and sixth in 2009. The latter survey put him ahead of Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson. Surely his presidency deserves a page or two of evaluation.

ONE CONCLUDES that this edition of the ratings game is still a trifle uncertain about the rules. The forty-two-person list, neatly divided into five grading categories, never materializes. There is no attempt to discuss the skills required for a successful presidency. How important, for example, is executive experience? (Five of the six Leaders of Destiny served either as governors or commanding generals, although Jefferson’s tenure as governor of Virginia was lackluster, and Lincoln, the one exception, is widely considered the greatest of them all.) Quite a number of presidents are discussed trenchantly, but a few make only cameo appearances. The Leaders of Destiny are a reasonable approximation of a greatness list, but even here one can raise questions. Jefferson and Jackson, for example, may have been great men, but they also were advocates of small government, slave owners who believed in a decentralized agrarian republic, and hostile toward industry and capitalist finance. Did they actually grasp their nation’s destiny? Was Lincoln really a shrewd political manipulator or, as he himself insisted, a leader who was controlled by events he muddled through?

Systematic analysis is not Robert Merry’s game. Delighting in provocative observation, he seems more attracted to horseshoes and hand grenades than to analytical political chess. Most readers of this thoughtful and readable volume will find something in it to provoke them—and likely enjoy the provocation.

Alonzo L. Hamby is Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio University. He has written extensively on Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman and is completing a biography of FDR.

Pullquote: Nineteen men have served more than one term as president. Their collective experience demonstrates that it is very difficult to negotiate more than four years in the office without significant challenges.Image: Essay Types: Book Review