Merry, editor of The National Interest, a foreign-policy journal, takes academic surveys seriously, but he proposes a novel and more populist approach: that we need to also consider how well-liked each leader was in his own time. More often than not, Merry argues, voter approval and later historical esteem end up coinciding. He notes that James Polk is the only single-term president to ever appear on the “10 best president” lists of historians. “Presidents who were successful with the voters have tended to be rated by historians as our greatest executives, while those who were rejected by the voters generally don’t get smiles of approval from the scholars,” Merry writes.
There are notable exceptions, of course. Take Lincoln, for instance. For a long period it did not look as if he was going to win reelection in 1864. And Warren Harding was immensely popular in his time but is derided by modern historians. For the most part, however, favorability in the eyes of voters translates into respect in the assessments of present-day academics. Merry takes away from this the happy lesson that “the voting collective, sifting through the civic complexities of the day in a highly charged electoral environment, have as much sense about the direction of the country as academics looking back with the clarity of hindsight and the cool dispassion of time.”
“Where They Stand” then becomes a fun but enlightening examination of the achievements and reputation of each individual president, nearly every one of whom has seen his reputation fluctuate. Sometimes, as with Ulysses S. Grant’s strong civil rights record, historians have later come to value something the voters at the time did not. Others presidents, such as Harry Truman, according to Merry, have undeservedly seen their stock rise over time as what made them unpopular among their contemporaries has been forgotten. From James Madison to Richard Nixon, Merry reassesses nearly every leader in the light of the views of the voters he needed to persuade.