History doesn't change, but what we want from it does. There may be no more difficult task than trying to rate American presidents; no sooner has history made a decision on Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant or Harry Truman than a current event changes our perception of a past one and the perceptions of the presidents shift all over again.
With this truth firmly in mind, Robert Merry, editor of The National Interest and author of a book on James K. Polk's presidency, "A Century of Vast Design," has undertaken the ranking of our chief executives through a new method -- or rather, through an old one -- examining them in the light (or perhaps taillight) of how they stood in their own time. "I seek to analyze the presidency," Mr. Merry writes in his introduction, "through an intertwined exploration of both the academic polls and the ballot box reactions."
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Mr. Merry doesn't place much stock "in the personal judgments of individual analysts or commentators (including myself) except insofar as they contribute to the ongoing Rating Game discussion." This approach, he says, "militates against any tendency to insert partisan sentiments into the discussion.
Would that were true. But for the most part, "Where They Stand" is both stimulating and refreshing, particularly in its take on presidents such as Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Ulysses S. Grant, whose legacies have been obscured by time and controversy.
Jackson, for instance, has been vilified by modern historians (as indeed he was by many in his own time) for the tragic Trail of Tears in which American Indian tribes were uprooted from their homes and sent to western territories. "No man of his time," wrote Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1989, "was at once so widely loved and so deeply hated." Still, Jackson made an indelible impact on American history. He opened up American politics and moved the country a considerable distance toward democratic ideals. He also "abhorred concentrated power in Washington" although he was far from hesitant to concentrate it in himself.
James Madison was "generally considered a middling president," but he gets high marks from Mr. Merry for "his high standing with this fellow citizens at the time of his ascendancy." (He also argues, less convincingly, that Madison's War of 1812 was "successful.")
"Where They Stand" is filled with almost flip-page observations about presidents that are shrewd and provocative. He writes of Polk, "No other president presents such a chasm in our time between actual accomplishment and popular recognition," and his "tenacity and political adroitness extended the country's territorial expanse by a third and established America as a transcontinental power." Unfortunately, he failed to convey his message to voters. Still, Polk left, in Mr. Merry's words, "not a bad record for a four-year presidency."
Ulysses S. Grant really gets a boost, pulled out of the "Failure category." Grant gains in Mr. Merry's view because most negative association with his presidency came from early historians, not from the voters themselves.
"Where They Stand," though, stumbles on analysis of contemporary presidents. Jimmy Carter's administration was a failure by most standards, but it would look less so if Mr. Merry had mentioned his primary accomplishment, the Camp David Accords. And Mr. Merry seems to be trying to pull George W. Bush from the bottom of the presidential list middle-ground territory, failing to acknowledge his inept handling of the events following Hurricane Katrina and, most glaringly, the financial collapse of 2008. Likewise, in his rather gloomy projections for Barack Obama, he fails to stress the deep holes the economic disaster and Bush's war in Iraq left him in.
"Where They Stand" is, often, first-rate history, whatever its shortcomings on current affairs.
Allen Barra writes for The Wall Street Journal and American History magazine.