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Popularity Contest

THE GREAT WHITE HOUSE Rating Game is ongoing and endless—and open to everyone,” writes Robert W. Merry in his new book. “Wanna play?” Many, to judge by the recurring polls of presidential favorability and the persistent debate about President Obama’s likeability, are eager to engage in Merry’s antics. This makes sense: in Merry’s account, “the judgment of history” should “coincide to a significant degree with the contemporaneous judgment of the electorate.”

Such an argument, of course, risks a maddening circularity. Being popular means you’re successful; being successful means you’re popular. No surprises there. So what exactly, is this book trying to tell us about the significance, root, and promise of presidential popularity? Merry focuses on a three-part test to attempt to impose order on the “rating game.” Was a president re-elected? Was his party successor elected? And do historians like him? This method does shed some light, suggesting that certain presidencies—James Madison’s, for example—deserve re-assessment. And when Merry advances beyond the popularity tautology, he suggests richer paradigms for greatness—that ideas and governance drive history, not just men.

But Where They Stand rarely provides substantive or incisive instruments. Merry sweeps aside his best ideas with a torrent of clipped anecdotes, capsule critiques, and synoptic renderings. At a moment when the idea of statesmanship is suffering, this book does far too little to flesh out presidential leadership.

In Merry’s favor, he has done his research. He examines a library shelf of presidential assessments, from Arthur Schlesinger Sr.’s famous Life magazine article in 1948—which asked 55 experts to rank presidents—to a survey in 1982 of 2,000 participants that concentrated on “controversial presidents,” to a book in 2008 by the historian Al Felzenberg. Merry leans most heavily on Allan J. Lichtman and Ken DeCell’s book, The 13 Keys to the Presidency, from 1990, and its argument that “presidential campaigns turn on questions of governance, not on the fine points of campaigning.” But his immersion in the literature does not always help his case. His uncritical embrace of the Lichtman/DeCell paradigm at times renders his analysis plainly derivative.

In addition to his three-part breakdown of the rating game, Merry ventures his own three-part theory of statesmanship (admittedly borrowed from Henry Adams): “political perceptiveness” (common among politicians, but rare “in finely honed form”), “vision” (the “capacity to visualize a new national direction and a significantly changed country”), and “political adroitness” (the ability to “harness those political forces to move the country toward the vision”). The presidents who meet these criteria, Merry writes, are the “Leaders of Destiny”: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. These men were, by his original three-part test (he has a deep affinity for these tests), truly great: they were re-elected, and followed by party succession; were consistently ranked highly by historians; and they “transformed the country’s political landscape and set it upon a new course.”

The metaphors are mixed here, unless a landscape can be made to sail, and Merry’s deeper idea is even more jumbled. In thrall to the mechanics of popularity, Merry focuses too much on how great leaders hew to trends. So Jefferson “pushed aside the kind of budding governmental aristocracy favored by the Federalists” to promote his Democratic-Republican Party, and so Roosevelt embraced a “crisis strategy of experimentation.”

It’s well and good to highlight nimble foresight. But something critical is missing here—the force of will. It’s like saying Joe Lewis was a successful boxer because he had great eyesight. Centuries ago, Machiavelli famously described political greatness as virtú, a nettlesome term that Burckhardt defined as a “combination of force and ability.” What doesn’t come through in Merry’s account is how these presidents willed themselves to render their actions as destiny. Merry writes that Lincoln “remained cautious during the war.” True, in certain respects. But was he more cautious than courageous? The Southern politicians and generals he combated and the political foes he vanquished would all disagree.

The book declines further when Merry comes to the sorts of situations that require real statesmanship to resolve. In an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand paragraph on FDR’s conduct in World War II, Merry writes, “The president’s war record was not entirely unalloyed. It could be argued that his policy of forcing an unconditional surrender on Germany allowed the Soviets to conquer nearly all of Eastern Europe and threaten the West with a mortal danger.” The asterisks distract from the argument, if there is one at all. “It could be argued” are not the words of a confident writer. Is it even possible for a “war record” to be unalloyed? And is he seriously arguing that FDR should not have forced Germans’ unconditional surrender?

Merry uses a history-lite lens to assess Ronald Reagan as well. The fortieth president was re-elected, and his party successor (George H.W. Bush) succeeded at the ballot too. But he has been ranked only as middling by historians. Merry brushes past this apparent challenge to his three-part formula with an airy assessment that manages to say almost nothing at all about Reagan’s potential greatness while revealing the hollowness of Merry’s analytic method: “no doubt history eventually—on its own table—will provide an answer.”

Merry’s problem is that finally he has an aversion to substance. “It is not the purpose of this book to sort out academic arguments,” he writes “but rather to trace their historical standing over time.” But more “academic” arguments would have added depth to the book, revealing not only how presidents achieved esteem, but what they, in truth, actually accomplished.

Indeed, how are we even to trust that popularity matters at all in establishing a president’s legacy? Some think it does not. In 2004, Pete Wehner, then the director of President George W. Bush’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, described to The Washington Post the administration’s philosophy: “My view, as I read history, is that almost all consequential figures—political figures—are polarizing figures.”

With this philosophy, President Bush recklessly invaded Iraq and trashed his opponents, and Merry predictably deems him perhaps the worst president ever. Still, the Wehner view poses a stark challenge to Merry’s theory, suggesting that popularity is a deeply flawed lens for determining greatness. Harry Truman took the gutsiest of decisions, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Marshall Plan, and was deeply unpopular when he left office. His stock has risen over the years, as history (yes, academic history) has digested his impact. Yet Merry’s best on Truman is this: “It can be argued that both historians and voters were correct in their separate assessments of Truman’s presidency, with the historians concentrating on his overall record and the voters sticking to their four-year evaluations.”

Instead of helping resolve when, how, and where popularity should matter, Merry treats the whole matter as sport—a game in which “the rules … can be changed from time to time.” In a time of purported national decline, the last thing we need when exploring statesmanship is another game. Where They Stand provides a diverting and occasionally enlightening tour through the legacies of dozens of presidents. But those seeking to chart a course between the argument for polarization-as-greatness and the pursuit of shallow popularity will be left at square one.

Michael Signer is visiting professor at Virginia Tech and Managing Principal of Madison Law and Strategy Group, PLLC. He is at work on his second book, titled Becoming Madison: The Making of an American Statesman, to be published by PublicAffairs.