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Where They Stand

When it comes to picking presidents, voters may do as well as academics.

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Where They Stand:
The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians
By Robert W. Merry
Simon & Schuster
320 pages

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Is debating the relative rankings of past American presidents a harmless pastime – a topic no weightier than a discussion of the merits or demerits of the best quarterbacks? Or is it instead a dangerous practice that encourages voters to take a romanticized view of the presidency?

Journalist Robert Merry, in Where They Stand, his well-informed new book, acknowledges that presidential rankings are an obsession for many politicos. But the result is not all bad, he argues: These debates generate interest in American history, and inspire us to become more knowledgeable about the past.  

In any case, president-rating is not going away anytime soon. In 1948, Life magazine published the first academic survey in the White House Rating Game, canvassing 55 political scientists, historians, and journalists on their rankings. The top three picks, in order, were Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Sixty-four years and many similar surveys later, those three presidents still top virtually every presidential score card. (Sometimes they swap position. Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt have both knocked George Washington to fourth place at least once.) Overall, however, such consistency over so many decades suggests that something more than random adoration is at work. 

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