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Merry presents here a fresh, playful, and challenging way of playing America’s favorite political game, “Rating the Presidents.” The book explores how presidents have succeeded and failed and how they are assessed in history, and it offers a novel insight into presidential rankings—that any historical assessment of presidential performance should take into account the contemporaneous judgment of the electorate. After all, writes Merry, in politics, as in retailing, the customer is always right. Thus one index of presidential success, writes Merry, is a two-term president succeeded by his own party--meaning voter approbation after both terms. Merry looks at the presidents considered greats, near greats, average, and failures, and he explores the historical attitudes and sensibilities that have fostered these rankings and, in some rare occasions, contributed to presidents going up or down in the historical standings. The book offers abundant insights into some of the most compelling figures in American history, for, as Merry notes, even mediocre presidents demonstrated force and cleverness in getting elected. 

Where They Stand
The American Presidents in the
Eyes of Voters and Historians
 
 
 

Merry’s new book, on sale November 7, resurrects the presidential reputation of William McKinley, who has languished for decades in the shadow of his brilliant and flamboyant successor, Theodore Roosevelt. But much of TR’s legacy, writes Merry in this meticulously researched history, was built upon a foundation established by McKinley, a man of genial demeanor and modest sensibilities who nonetheless dominated the politics of his time through a kind of stealthy and indirect leadership. Indeed, even McKinley’s contemporaries seldom understood just how thoroughly they were being manipulated by this sly, determined, resourceful politician who left a powerful legacy of his own—acquisition, through war and diplomacy, of imperial territories in the Caribbean and Asia; a complete embrace of the gold standard; the emergence of ``reciprocity’’ in trade policy, a forerunner to today’s ``fair trade”; the Open Door in China; and the forging of the U.S.-British ``special relationship.”  This obscure and often elusive president comes to life in these pages. 

President McKinley
Architect of the American Century

“A lively, deeply researched, and richly informed biography that will gratify any political junkie or fan of presidential history.”

—Karl Rove, author of The Triumph of William McKinley

“A Fascinating study of the American presidency and our American Presidents.

Superbly researched and written.”

Ken, Amazon Books customer

“one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Washington politics, during the decisive 1840s.”

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, writing in The New York Times

A New York Times Bestseller and New York Times “Notable Book"

Widely considered by historians as the greatest of America’s one-term president’s, James K. Polk of Tennessee has languished in relative obscurity in the American consciousness. Merry sought to change that with this fast-paced narrative of how James Polk accomplished so much in so little time. He cut tariff rates, created the Independent Treasury System (a forerunner to the Federal Reserve), and brought to the country more than 500,000 square miles of territory through his controversial war with Mexico (to get the vast American Southwest, including California) and through hazardous bargaining with Great Britain (to bring in what is now the Pacific Northwest). Merry describes Polk as a ``smaller-than-life figure with larger-than-life ambitions,” and therein lies a fascinating tale of how this often crimped and suspicious man—through force of will, relentless toil, and clever maneuvering—managed to set the course of American history in important ways. Then he gave up the presidency voluntarily, based on a promise to the American people before his election, and shortly thereafter he died. The evidence is strong, writes Merry, that he essentially worked himself to death. Few books offer such a lucid and lively narrative treatment of this important chapter in American history. 

A Country of Vast Designs
James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the
Conquest of the American Continent

My BOOKS

Ambassador Award winner from the English Speaking Union

and a New York Times “Notable Book”

Merry’s first book, published in 1996, traces the remarkable journalistic and social careers of Joseph and Stewart Alsop, powerful columnists in an era when successful syndicated commentators occupied the pinnacle of American journalism. Their insightful and often pungent prose graced the pages of hundreds of newspapers and such potent national magazines as The Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek. Merry employs these widely connected figures to explore a number of intertwined themes illuminating America from 1935 to 1975, including the country’s rise to superpower status, the political turbulence of the Cold War, the role of America’s Anglo-Saxon elite in shaping the postwar world, and that elite’s eventual decline with the Vietnam debacle. Merry profiles the political giants of the era, including the Roosevelts (blood relatives of the Alsops), the Kennedys, the so-called Wise Men (Acheson, Harriman, Bohlen, Kennan), Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and more. By exploring the brothers’ elevated social status, the book opens a window on the famous ``Georgetown Set” and Washington’s effervescent high society. It is, writes historian Richard Reeves, “a family saga ready for Masterpiece Theatre.”

Taking On the World
Joseph and Stewart Alsop -
Guardians of the American Century

“a critical portrait, executed with respect and affection but also with critical acumen”

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kennedy, writing in The New York Times

“This important book gets at the philosophical underpinnings of an otherwise banal foreign policy debate, and in so doing, it bears the essentials of what we’re really arguing about.”

Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations

This compact volume, published in 2005, was inspired by Merry’s opposition to the Iraq War and his desire to understand the ideas and concepts that propelled America toward such a foolhardy mission. He found his culprit in the hoary notion that goes by the name of the Idea of Progress—the idea that mankind has advanced over the centuries through quickening stages of development, from primitiveness and barbarism to enlightenment and civilization—and that mankind will continue to advance through the human experience on earth. This powerful and influential concept, writes Merry, is wrong, for it ignores the distinctive development patterns of distinct and discrete civilizations, each with its own culture and sense of itself. But the Idea of Progress, a Western shibboleth, has produced the concepts of Eurocentrism and American exceptionalism, leading inevitably to the idea that Westerners can and should reshape other peoples and other cultures into something approaching the Western image. Through this prism Merry explores U.S. international relations, past, present, and future, and posits a notion of what a measured and effective American foreign policy should look like. 

Sands of Empire
Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy,
and the Hazards of Global Ambition