The country’s favorite novelist, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, once tossed off a line that went on to achieve eternal life. “There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote Fitzgerald in what, had he managed to finish it, would have become The Last Tycoon. It was the kind of line that, although patently false, tends to be selected for prominent display in the Hall of Blinding Insights. (You can look for it just down the corridor from “America’s strength lies in our diversity.”) Such notions persist because they are thought to protect something of value in the national imagination, regardless of the damage they may inflict on the factual record.
In 2009, he raised the curtain on Act Two by publishing an ambitious book, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. It was a political biography, drawn hopefully to the McCullough-Chernow specs for popular success: While it was easily accessible to the lay reader, it was at least mildly deferential to academic convention. The book was well received. Readers liked it. Reviewers were respectful. Scholars held their fire. The reputation of James K. Polk was reclaimed from an undeserved obscurity. And Robert Merry, the formerly ink-stained wretch, soon became Robert Merry, presidential biographer. (Look for his President McKinley: The Art of Stealthy Leadership due out later this year.)
In 2012, Merry doubled down with Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians. Striding in where others might have chosen to tiptoe, he proceeded to rate the individual performances of the first 39 U.S. presidents. (The records of the five most recent presidents, in Merry’s judgment, were unsettled in 2012, and definitive ratings would thus have been premature.) The engine of his book is the set of criteria by which Merry proposed to judge presidential performance. He chose these three: to be a great president, one must have 1) received consistently high rankings from historians; 2) earned high regard from his constituents (such regard as is reflected in a two-term or partial two-term presidency, followed by a successor from the same party); and 3) achieved success in transforming the political landscape and setting the country in a new direction.
Freeman: Let’s start with the 39th president, Jimmy Carter. If I’m applying your criteria correctly, he failed egregiously on all counts. Is it too soon to say that Carter has supplanted Buchanan — or Pierce, if you prefer — as the worst of the worst?
Merry: I see a distinction between failures of commission and failures of omission. The latter is a president’s inability to handle a crisis thrust upon him — Buchanan’s inability to grapple with the slavery crisis as it enveloped him, for example, or Carter’s haplessness in the face of economic crisis and gathering global threats. Failures of commission would include Woodrow Wilson’s maneuvering to get the U.S. into World War I, which he then executed in ways that threatened civil liberties, damaged the economy, and produced none of the benefits advertised. I would include George W. Bush’s horrendous decision to plant the American flag in the heartland soil of Islam, the consequences of which we are still grappling with. Herbert Hoover would straddle this distinction a bit, as he proved incapable of dealing with the Great Depression as it emerged, but also contributed to its depth and persistence by fostering and signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill. I think Wilson, Bush, and Hoover all deserve to be at or near the bottom of any presidential ranking.
Freeman: Fair enough. There’s plenty of opprobrium to go around. Perhaps we can call it a six-way tie for last place. Turning to the positive side of the ledger, it must have broken your heart to drop Polk from the first tier. He accomplished big things but then ran afoul of your criteria by term-limiting himself out after four years. Were you tempted to tweak the criteria in his case?
Merry: Polk did accomplish major things — conspicuously including the expansion of the nation to the Pacific — but he stirred voter ire sufficiently to turn the presidency over to the opposition Whigs at the next election after, as you note, honoring his commitment to serve only one term. The historians consistently rank him in the “near great” category, and I think that is correct.
Freeman: Before we turn to the modern presidents, let’s tease your upcoming book just a bit. Why was McKinley a “stealthy leader,” and how do you rate him?
Merry: I do so welcome this topic. Many historians see him as a passive fellow, a kind of leaf in the wind. Thus, while America was transformed during his tenure, many are loath to give him any credit. McKinley wasn’t helped by Theodore Roosevelt, who never shared credit with anybody and whose dim view of McKinley, expressed after his predecessor’s death, was picked up by TR’s swooning biographers. In fact, McKinley was much in control of events — brilliant at manipulating people into doing what he wanted them to do even as they thought they were acting under their own volition. Also, his rectitude and compassion endeared him to the American people. I think he deserves a “near great” ranking, and I’m hoping my book might elevate him a bit.
Freeman: We’ll give the McKinley book our coveted “much anticipated” designation. In your 2012 book, Where They Stand, you were uncharacteristically tentative in your assessment of Ronald Reagan. Has the historical record settled sufficiently for you to firm up a rating?
Merry: By my standard of contemporaneous voter assessment, he rises to a high level — a two-term president succeeded by a president of his own party. That’s difficult to accomplish, which is why it is rare. Reagan reshaped the economic debate in America and set the country on a new course. And there’s no question that he is the single greatest figure in the West’s Cold War victory. Those are two huge accomplishments, which is why I consider Reagan one of the two greatest presidents of the 20th century, along with FDR. Reagan is increasingly getting the recognition he deserves, but the holdouts are becoming almost comical in their refusal to step back and see the matter with any historical perspective.
Freeman: You’ll be amazed to hear that I concur with your assessment. And while I concede that it’s much too early to draw a confident judgment, what is your preliminary rating for Barack Obama?
Merry: Obama’s first term barely made him eligible for rehire. He won reelection by fewer than four percentage points, putting him in a category with only four presidents with similarly slim re-election margins. All had difficult or disastrous second terms. Obama’s weaknesses — the full magnitude of Obamacare, stalemate with Congress, foreign-policy incoherence, limited economic growth — ultimately paved the way for a GOP resurgence. I don’t see history giving Obama an assessment better than mediocre.
Freeman: You’re a tough grader, Merry. Let’s finish up with a topic for the time capsule. You’ve studied all 44 presidents. A generation from now, how will your successor be rating our next president, No. 45?
Merry: One thing we know about presidents is that we never know how they will perform until they actually get the job. Some of our greatest presidents — Lincoln comes to mind — were seen to be utterly unequal to the challenge. Reagan, too, and to a lesser extent, FDR.
Trump has an opportunity for greatness, as he was the one candidate who perceived that the political and global status quo was crumbling, and he was willing to craft his message with that recognition — whereas his opponents continued to cling to the status quo as if it were a life raft in a stormy sea.
Moving from an older order to some kind of undefined new order is difficult for any polity in any era, and the question is whether Trump has the kind of temperament, mind, fortitude, and consistency of outlook to bring this off. If he does, he will be a figure of tremendous historical dimension.
Freeman: Thanks, Bob.
— Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.