Monday, December 10, 2012

Q&A with author Robert W. Merry

Robert W. Merry
Robert W. Merry, editor of The National Interest, is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.

Q: Which presidents have risen or declined most sharply in the ratings in recent years, and why?

A: Grant has risen from the depths to mid-level because of new thinking about Reconstruction and who were the good guys and bad guys (Radical Republicans in Congress now are more favorably looked upon, while Southern sympathizers are less favorably considered). The other side of the coin is Andrew Johnson, who has declined in the standings as a result of the same change in academic modes of thought. Also, Reagan has been enjoying a steady upward trajectory in the historian rankings, just as Eisenhower did a generation or so before.

Q: You give six presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts—the designation “leader of destiny,” and you mention that a new “leader of destiny” could be on the horizon. Do you have a particular person in mind, and what qualities would such a leader need?

A: I don't think we know who a Leader of Destiny might be before he actually takes power and begins to wield it. Lincoln was considered a country bumpkin; FDR a man of solid temperament but limited intellect; Reagan a failed movie actor. Yet all three altered the country's political landscape and set it upon a new course.

Q: Where do you think President Obama eventually will rank in the minds of future historians and citizens?

A: Impossible to know, as we don't know how his second term will turn out. His first term was essentially lackluster, but not so lackluster as to render him ineligible for rehire by the American people. Hence, he was rehired. But to rise significantly in history's assessment, he will have to break the current political deadlock that has the country in its grip. To do that he will have to scramble up the political fault lines of the country and create new governing coalitions that can move event forward. Think of FDR and his entirely new New Deal coalition; or Nixon wooing the big George Wallace vote into the GOP; or Reagan and his Reagan Democrats. Obama will have to do that, or he will be buffeted by current political forces to such an extent that his second term will be even more lackluster. Result: Middle range in the judgment of future historians.

Q: You also have written a biography of President James K. Polk. Where does he stand on the presidential list, and why?

A: Polk remains a very controversial and even polarizing president even today among intellectuals, particularly liberals uncomfortable with the war he fostered with Mexico. But history has taken a kinder view toward him, ranking him consistently in the ``near great'' category. He is praised for serving a single term by choice and jamming into that term major successes of serious historical dimensions--getting Texas into the Union; cutting tariff rates; getting most of Oregon territory from the Brits; creating the "independent treasury'' to maintain currency stability; and getting California and the Southwest into the U.S. (albeit through his war with Mexico). I think the historians have it about right.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: I'm staying with presidents for now. I'm in the early stages of research on the 1890s and America's push toward imperialism and global ambition. I'm not entirely comfortable with that development, looking at it in historical terms, but the country was full of sap (as I wrote in the first chapter of my biography on the Alsop brothers), and thus was irrepressible. In any event, it was a yeasty time for America, and I don't think it has received the treatment it deserves.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A:  Yes, regarding that Leader of Destiny on the horizon, remember that crises in our system are solved through presidential leadership or not at all. He or she may be two or even three presidential election cycles away, but that Leader of Destiny will emerge at some point. Perhaps it will turn out to be Barack Obama, but I consider that unlikely. He had four years to demonstrate such a capacity for that kind of rare leadership, and he didn't manage to do it. And one more thing: Thanks for the opportunity to throw my thoughts around.

Interview with Deborah Kalb. Robert W. Merry will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival April 19-21, 2013. For a full schedule of events, please click here.

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