How should we rank our presidents? Which of them merit inclusion in the pantheon of the great? Which fit comfortably into the obscurity of mediocrity and which deserve to be consigned to the circle of failures, there to suffer eternal disgrace? In "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians," Robert Merry confesses to being obsessed with "The Great White House Rating Game." Yet he hardly need be apologetic. Ranking leaders is one of the oldest of pastimes, as old as, well, Scripture itself.
What are the books of Kings and Chronicles but a version of "The Game" in which the 43 monarchs from Saul to Zedekiah are judged according to whether they have done good or evil in the sight of the Lord? These kings and queens run the gamut in their talents and righteousness, much like our own 43 presidents (counting Grover Cleveland, who served nonconsecutive terms, only once). For every Solomon or Hezekiah, there is a Washington or a Lincoln; for every Rehoboam or Ahab, a James Buchanan or a Richard Nixon. Then there are those perplexing "tweeners" so difficult to rate: like Josiah, skilled in domestic affairs but inept as a war leader (LBJ?); or Jehoshaphat, adept in foreign affairs but weak on domestic politics (Truman?).
While playful in describing his passion in "Where They Stand," Mr. Merry is deadly earnest about it. He proposes a strategy to minimize the opinions of individual analysts—his own included—and base assessments on two objective, or at least measurable, criteria: the rankings of historians (a kind of Real Clear index of the surveys taken over the years) and the contemporaneous verdicts of the electorate. Deploying these two "fundamental indices," Mr. Merry believes, will ensure a system of more accurate and reliable judgments.
His opening section, "The Historians," traces the academic rankings of presidents since Arthur Schlesinger Sr. did the first major one for Life magazine in 1948. These indexes pose their problems. Many of the surveys of historians have fallen short of being random samples. The Schlesinger efforts (he revised his original poll in 1962 and his son, Arthur Jr., did another one in 1996) involved little more than a rounding up of his academic buddies, which did nothing to ensure political impartiality. No wonder that the poll by Schlesinger Jr., who had served as court historian to John F. Kennedy, slotted JFK 12 places higher than Ronald Reagan. Mr. Merry, who is well disposed to the Gipper, finds this ranking tough to swallow. But the polls of experts, he still insists, "represent the closest we can come to the judgment of history."
He places greater stock in the verdict of "The People," particularly when they pronounce retrospectively on presidential performance by voting for a successor. His challenge is to transform their decisions on the candidates of the day into a method for ranking. The solution is a schema that places presidents in one of three categories, ranging from worse to better: one-termers (those elected or elevated who are passed over or defeated when seeking the next term); two-termers (those who are re-elected after serving); and three-termers (two-termers whose party holds onto the presidency in the ensuing election). Exemptions are offered for those who die in office.
There is considerable overlap between Mr. Merry's two indexes. The greats and near-greats as judged by the historians favor three-termers—Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt (literally a five-termer), Jefferson, Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt—while the lower ranks contain a large number of one-termers: Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. But the correlation is weak, because the historians have often placed one-termers (Adams and Polk) and two-termers (Wilson and Truman) in the top categories and included a number of three-termers (Grant and Coolidge) in the lower categories.
Having taken his system thus far, Mr. Merry turns to reconciling the differences in his indexes with his own judgments. A particularly insightful chapter focuses on the failures. Mr. Merry makes a compelling case for removing the two- and three-termers from this category. He relies heavily here on his electoral index, arguing that while the historians' judgment is good, that of the people is better. Grant has long been dismissed by historians as, in Mr. Merry's summation, "a backward, bumbling product of the country's Gilded Age." Yet he acted decisively to curb the rampant excesses of Southern vigilantism and helped promote a huge spurt in economic growth. Voters ratified his two terms by electing another Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, his successor.
Harding, too, gave the people exactly what they wanted, which was an end to Wilsonian idealism (a sentiment that Mr. Merry applauds). And Coolidge, whose case represents "the largest disparity between voter and historical assessments," had some notable achievements, above all in "fostering a free market climate." Coolidge, Mr. Merry laments, "gets no respect from history," though he ought to charge this injustice not to history but to the historians, who are biased against Coolidge's philosophy of government restraint. Mr. Merry, who is very much a foreign-policy realist, also reveals a certain sympathy for Nixon (a two-termer), whom he judges to have been, in some ways, a "brilliant" president of "manifest achievements." The historians' collective judgment, though, has forever locked poor Richard in a lowly place.
Any exercise of ranking presidents must in the end be about identifying and celebrating excellence. Despite devoting three of his 11 chapters to "The Test of Greatness," Mr. Merry is, alas, at his least illuminating in treating the best presidents. To satisfy the imperatives of his two fundamental indexes, he takes the historians' list of presidents in the top two categories and purges it of all one- and two-termers, keeping only the three-termers. The exercise produces Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, TR and FDR—"the tall firs in the forest of American history, rising above all others and serving as landmarks."
This bid to replace Mount Rushmore with the Redwoods disappoints by its failure to discriminate. Driven by his flattening standard of the best presidents' holding power for three terms, Mr. Merry implausibly contends that these "Leaders of Destiny" have guided us for more than one-fifth of our history. Destiny, one senses, is made of sterner stuff. More important, his list makes the good the enemy of the best by failing to do justice to the unmistakable gap that exists between the top three presidents (Washington, Lincoln and FDR) and the other three (Jefferson, Jackson and TR). Although greatness can never be captured in a simple definition, Mr. Merry's notion of destiny—to "transform the country's political landscape and set it upon a new course"—is inadequate as a basis of measuring real distinction.
Greatness is to be found not just in the effecting of an important change but in comparing the magnitude and worth of the achievement. Washington assured that the Constitution would in fact be accepted as our governing charter and established the real content and scope of the office of the presidency. Lincoln saved the nation from dismemberment and freed the slaves. FDR, however one may judge his specific policies, kept the confidence of the public in liberal democracy during a period when many were questioning its viability. Accomplishments of this order are on a higher plane than, to take the case of TR, "the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission and legislation to foster safety in the country's food supply and drugs."
"Where They Stand" is an engaging book that is marred by its preoccupation with measurable indexes whose criteria are at most consequences, not causes, of excellence. It does not look high enough. No great president—think of Washington or Lincoln—would make re-election his top priority, let alone waste a minute worrying about how future academics would rank him. Only efforts to appreciate greatness on its own terms can hope to grasp the phenomenon. They remain the most worthwhile game in town.
Mr. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.