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.