NPR Story
2:09 pm
Tue July 3, 2012

How History Colors Our View Of Presidents

Originally published on Tue July 3, 2012 5:06 pm

Transcript

JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. John Roberts plays the hero and the villain. Charlie Rangel may face a recount in New York. The attorney general is held in contempt, and Chris Christie has something spicy to say to a reporter. Stand by for it, it's Wednesday(ph) and time for a...

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: Are you stupid?

DONVAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

DONVAN: Every week, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us here in Studio 3A to recap the week in politics. This week, some House Democrats crossed the aisle to vote in favor of contempt charges against Attorney General Eric Holder. The vote went through, but the Department of Justice declined to prosecute. Nevertheless, John Boehner says to expect a civil suit on the issue.

The state House Ethics Committee cleared South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley of ethics violations charges related to her lobbying activities when she was a state representative, and both presidential campaigns respond to the Supreme Court's health care ruling. Is it a tax? Is it a penalty? And what does that mean for the race for the White House?

In a few minutes, we'll speak with Bob Merry, who is author of "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians." And later on in the program, is a calorie still a calorie? Gary Taubes isn't so sure. But first we begin as we always do with a trivia question, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, John.

DONVAN: Hi.

RUDIN: Well, with Independence Day coming tomorrow, that's what made me think of this trivia question: Who was the last member of Congress to have won election as a Democrat but also as a Republican and also as an independent?

DONVAN: A three-time winner.

RUDIN: Well, perhaps more so, but on those three parties, yes.

DONVAN: OK, if you think you know the answer give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And the winner gets that fabulous no-prize T-shirt in exchange for a promise to send us a digital picture for our Wall of Shame.

So Ken, the health care ruling last week is what everybody is talking about. What does it mean for November?

RUDIN: Well, I think first of all, everybody seems to be focused on the role of John Roberts, and that's what's so remarkable about that because before the vote, I think all the Democrats, liberals, progressives, thought that it would be a very political decision by the court, by the conservative vote led by John Roberts and perhaps Anthony Kennedy.

But nobody ever expected that it would be the conservatives, the right wing of the political spectrum that is now equating John Roberts with Earl Warren, as, you know, as a Republican sellout. So I mean, so first of all there are a lot of talks about John Roberts betraying conservatives, betraying the country, betraying the Constitution, and I don't know where that's going, but that's pretty remarkable to watch.

DONVAN: Well, as you say, it was expected to be a political vote, but it actually does have political consequences. So what are they?

RUDIN: Well, it does, but what the consequences are are really not clear because for example it's good news for Barack Obama because that was one of his key tenets of his presidency, this Affordable Healthcare Act, and the court affirms it.

But of course it also - the court also says that it was a tax, that, you know, that this - if you don't sign onto the mandate, you have to pay a tax. And President Obama, when he pushed this law through, he promised the middle-class America that it was not a tax. So this is not really great news for the Obama campaign message.

But it's probably even more of a muddling message for Mitt Romney because as governor of Massachusetts, he had that same mandate, in a sense, when he had a Massachusetts health care bill that was also considered a tax. So Mitt Romney's always been having - he's always had a tough time trying to navigate this issue in his bid for the presidency.

DONVAN: What are the implications further down the road for court challenges to other, say, New Deal programs based on what Roberts has written into this? Because some say it's a ticking time bomb in that sense.

RUDIN: Well, it is, and I don't think people - I mean, people are really writing off John Roberts as a sellout, and I think that's so beyond the pale, but what it really says, what it really seems to say, at least as far as politics 2012, is that the anti-health care act folks, the conservatives and the folks on the right, seem to be more energized about this, and they say that this will be the issue that will put Mitt Romney into the White House in 2012. And Romney himself, of course, says the first thing he'll do is get rid of Obamacare.

DONVAN: So Florida's governor, Rick Scott, is already reacting in his own way, showing some defiance to the persistence of this law. So tell us what he's doing, what he's saying.

RUDIN: Well, part of the law allows - it calls for Medicaid expansion, in which that states that are paying a certain amount of money to have people on Medicaid, the new health care law, the federal health care law, which is more expensive, the federal government will pay the difference.

So in other words, many states that have people uninsured, I think it's like 19 or 20 percent uninsured in Florida alone, the federal government will pay the difference. But there are a lot of conservatives like Rick Scott in Florida or Rick Perry in Pennsylvania, Nikki Haley in South Carolina, governors who say that this is just, you know, big government, big federal government, and they're opting out from it. And they're saying that they're not going to just, you know, they're not going to expand this Medicaid coverage.

DONVAN: And what price do they pay for that?

RUDIN: Well, who knows? I mean, that's a good question. I think ideologically, they're staying true to their ideals, but again if it keeps people from being covered, from medical coverage in the states, I mean, there could be a rebellion down the line if that's what happens.

DONVAN: Do you think going into the presidential election that by this time in mid-October this will be the issue that we're talking about?

RUDIN: Well, ultimately everybody says no, that ultimately it will be the unemployment rate, whether it's 8.3 percent, what it is now, whether it will be lower or higher and the job prospects for the future. Both sides, I think, both the Romney and the Obama camps, seem to say that let's just get - let's push this health care issue aside, and let's focus on the real issue, which is the economy.

DONVAN: Let's talk about Eric Holder and the situation where he faces a charge of contempt of Congress. And in fact, members of the Democratic Party crossed the aisle on that vote. What's going on there?

RUDIN: Well, I think more members of the Democratic Party walked out of the House last Thursday when they had the vote. The vote was 255 to something, but 17 Democrats voted to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt for not coming through with documents regarding the Fast and Furious gun program with guns into Mexico.

Now, a lot of people are saying that the reason these Democrats voted for it was because the NRA has decided this is a clear-cut vote that they will rate their members of Congress on, and of course a vote for holding Holder in contempt is good news, and if you vote against it it's bad news, and many of these Democrats are in very, very tough races.

But another hundred or so Democrats just walked out of the House chambers completely, saying this was just an outright political stunt, and they had no part of the vote itself.

DONVAN: So where does this go for Holder?

RUDIN: Well, nowhere because the Justice Department has already said that it's not going to - as you said in the beginning of the show, they're not going to prosecute Holder for anything. Holder himself, in a very frank interview with the Washington Post, said this is just blatant politics, the Republicans are taking out their frustration on President Obama - on himself as a proxy for President Obama.

And ultimately, Holder said he's going to be leaving the administration at the end of the year anyway, so it's not that he's going to go to jail or anything. But the Republicans say look, this is not about politics, this is not about playing games, it's about open and honest government, and that's something that the Justice Department is not supplying.

DONVAN: Let's take a little visit to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the discussion that took place on CNBC's "Squawk Box" this morning, where he was asked about his aspirations, potentially, for being on the ticket with Mitt Romney.

CHRISTIE: I've said this all along. I love being governor of New Jersey. You can tell, I think, every day the way I do my job that I love being governor. But the fact is if Governor Romney picks up the phone and calls, then you have to answer the call and listen, at least.

DONVAN: So is he a contender?

RUDIN: Well, he's - his name is always there, and of course I think he would make - personally, I think he would make a great convention keynote speaker because he will, you know, get the rank and file very excited at the convention. But ultimately, you know, if Mitt Romney is kind of a cautious guy, somebody who doesn't want to rock the boat, Chris Christie can be very volatile.

He can be - just the other day, he just attacked, went after a reporter, called him an idiot or a jerk or something. I mean, he just likes that.

DONVAN: Let me stop you there because we actually have the tape of that.

RUDIN: What luck.

DONVAN: Amazingly.

CHRISTIE: Did I say on topic? Are you stupid? On topic, on topic, next question. Good, thank you, thank you all very much, and I'm sorry for the idiot over there.

RUDIN: Now, he's not talking about me and you, John.

DONVAN: Yeah, I was wondering.

RUDIN: He's talking about a reporter in New Jersey. And ultimately, look, that plays well with some voters and some people, but it may be just too volatile of a choice for Mitt Romney to - but again, Chris Christie does excite. He's not a true conservative. The weirdest thing is he's not the most conservative guy in the bunch, but he loves to torment the Democrats and labor unions, and there's a lot of Republicans that like that kind of point of view.

DONVAN: Restate our trivia question of the day.

RUDIN: The trivia question is because with Independence Day coming tomorrow, name the last member of Congress who was elected as a Democrat but also as a Republican and as an independent in separate times.

DONVAN: All right, let's see if Bryce(ph) in Dubuque, Iowa, has the answer. Bryce, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

BRYCE: I'm taking a long shot here with Andrew Jackson.

RUDIN: Well, I would say no automatically because there was no Republican Party back when Andrew Jackson was alive. So in that sense alone...

DONVAN: Thanks very much, Bryce. Frank(ph), Frank in Ocean City, Maryland, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

FRANK: Hello, yeah, my guess was Joe Lieberman.

RUDIN: Well, Joe Lieberman of course was elected to the Senate starting in 1988 as a Democrat, and his last time in 2006, it was as an independent, but he was never elected as a Republican, although a lot of Democrats accused him of being a Republican.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANK: All right, guys, well, thank you.

DONVAN: Thanks very much, Frank. Laurie(ph), in Oklahoma City. Hi, Laurie, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

LAURIE: Hi, I'm going with Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

RUDIN: Well, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the former congressman and then senator from Colorado, was first elected to the Senate as a Democrat. He switched parties, I guess right after 1994, became a Republican, but he was never elected as an independent.

DONVAN: All right, Laurie, thanks for trying.

LAURIE: Thank you.

DONVAN: Sure, and Suzanne (ph) in Lynchburg, Virginia, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Excuse me, I made a slight error in bringing you up on the air. Suzanne, hi,

SUZANNE: Hello?

DONVAN: Hi, Suzanne, you're on TALK OF THE NATION now.

SUZANNE: Congressman Virgil Goode.

RUDIN: Well, Virgil Goode is the correct answer.

DONVAN: Ah, well done.

RUDIN: Virgil Goode was elected to Congress in 1996 and '98 as a Democrat. He was elected in 2000 as an independent, when he switched to the independent. And then in 2002, when he switched to the Republican Party, he was elected as a Republican. He was defeated for re-election in 2008.

Now the fun thing about him is he is the Constitution Party candidate for president in 2012, and of course, as you know, if he picked Tim Pawlenty as his running mate, you'd have a Goode and Pawlenty ticket, which has never happened before.

(LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: Suzanne, congratulations, and stay on the line with us because we'd like to get your information. So Ken Rudin is going to stay with us, and up next, a favorite for political junkie is the art of ranking presidents. Bob Merry has a new book out on the subject, and he will join us in just a moment.

We want to ask you: Is there a president you ultimately changed your mind about? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm John Donvan, this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan, and political junkie day comes a day early this week. Ken Rudin is with us ahead of the Fourth of July holiday. And Ken, was there a ScuttleButton winner last week?

RUDIN: There was, actually since I was not on the show last week, there were two ScuttleButton winners we need to talk about. Two weeks ago, there was a Lew Alcindor basketball card, and there was an Alan Wheat button from the Senate of Missouri. So when you combine Lew Alcindor and Alan Wheat, you have Kareem of Wheat.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Yes, yes, and anyway, Keith Dier(ph) of Orlando, Florida, was the winner on that one. And last week, there was a women's lib button, a Ronald Reagan button and a Jimmy Carter button. So when you have women's lib, Ron Reagan and James Earl Carter, you have Lib-Ron James. And Matthew Caine(ph) of Brooklyn, New York, was the winner there.

DONVAN: Wow, I am astounded by the way your mind works.

RUDIN: Well, medication is trying to help, but...

DONVAN: So you can find the latest ScuttleButton puzzle and Ken's political junkie column at npr.org/junkie. And Ken, we're in the middle of another heated presidential race, and there's a lot being made right now already of President Obama's legacy and what that may be after last week's health care decision.

And it raises a question that historians and voters alike love to ask: How do you rate a president? Call and tell us: Which president did you actually change your mind about? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org.

Well, joining us now in Studio 3A is Bob Merry, the editor of National Interest magazine, and Bob was Washington correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the executive editor of the Congressional Quarterly. And he has a new book out on this topic. It's called "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians." Bob, thanks for joining us.

ROBERT MERRY: My pleasure.

DONVAN: So is this a favorite parlor game of historians and voters alike, the re-rating of presidents or reassessing?

MERRY: I think it's a favorite parlor game of Americans generally. We rate athletes, and we rate singers and movie stars, but when we rate the presidents, we are rating people who actually have an impact on our destiny. And I think it has a lot of impact.

DONVAN: And the pattern, or trend I think, that you chart is that time changes perceptions greatly.

MERRY: Time does, and you see some presidents rising up and down the register, but what I'm trying to do here in this book is take the literature that sort of emerged with the polls of historians. That's history's judgment, and I don't take any umbrage at that. I think it's a significant index of judgment. But what's missing in those polls of the historians is what were the voters saying, what were the voters thinking contemporaneously with that president's tenure.

And so what I try to do is go back and look at these guys in terms of were they re-elected. If they were re-elected, was their party retained in power after their second term, meaning their second term was judged a success by the electorate, what was happening in midterm elections.

And then you can sort of see, well, what was - what were the voters thinking, and what was it based on in terms of their performance.

DONVAN: So the way that the voters speak to you from the past is through their actual voting records, as opposed to qualitative, you know, diaries or letters to the editors from voters. You're actually looking at what they did in the voting booth.

MERRY: I'm looking at what happened to these guys in the voting booth and then trying to sort of double back and see, well, what were they doing that led to that decision.

DONVAN: So who do you find is the clearest winner in that sense among presidents?

MERRY: Well, you can't - there isn't a clear winner because this is a parlor game, and the rules are a little bit hazy, which is why it's so fun. As Mark Twain says, it's a difference of opinion that make horse races, and what I say in the book is that the difference between a horse race and a presidential parlor game is that the difference of opinion at horse races ends at the finish line.

But this is endless, and it goes on forever, which is why it's so much fun. But so you have history's judgment in the form of these polls, and you look at it collectively. It's a significant body of sentiment. Then you have the voters' judgment, and then I add a little test of my own.

If the president was consistently judged highly by the historians and was a two-term president succeeded by his own party, meaning judged highly by the electorate, then I say to be really, truly great, he had to have changed the political landscape of America and redirected the country on a new path, and there were only six presidents who have done that.

DONVAN: And they are?

MERRY: They are, in order: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, TR on a lesser basis but TR, and FDR. I also say in the book, however, that I believe that Ronald Reagan is moving into that category. I couldn't put him there because he hasn't been consistently judged by the historians to be in a great or near-great category, but he's moving in that direction.

DONVAN: And do you actually address Barack Obama already in the book?

MERRY: Well, I do, and I suppose I could be called irresponsible for doing so. I do say in the book that you really can't get an accurate historical judgment until a generation passes, and we see that in these polls with presidents. Eisenhower is a good example, moving from a very middling performance or level of judgment, moving up consistently.

But in terms of Obama, I think we can say that his first two years were not a success. You can't have success and be - have your head handed to you by the electorate, as he did in 2010. His second two years, so far, have been better, and he's positioned himself to be very competitive for re-election.

RUDIN: Bob, two presidents I think of when I think of at the time their numbers were not so great and yet in retrospect, or at least in years, more succeeding years, a second opinion, one of course is Gerald Ford, who was an accidental president of course and was often laughed at when he was president. But when we think of him now, there's more of a sentiment that he was a good guy who meant well.

Another guy is Harry Truman, who left office, your book points it out, when he left office, he had 22 percent approval ratings and was driven out of office. He was not going to stand for another term. And yet presidential historians seem to rate him pretty high.

MERRY: Presidential historians rated him high from the very, very beginning. He was in the near-great category almost immediately. Here's where we get to a difference in how the voters judge these guys and how the historians judge them. Historians judge a president based on his overall record during his entire tenure, and they don't really care about what happened in his first term, what happened in his second term.

The voters, on the other hand, they have hiring and firing authority, which they take very seriously. It was handed to them by the Constitution. And they look at these guys in four-year increments. So if you look at Harry Truman's two separate terms, the inherited term was absolutely historic. If you add - I won't take all the time, but he saved Western Europe, he moved the country from peacetime to wartime to peacetime economy.

He had percolating economic situation. It was really a masterful performance, and the voters gave him another term as a result of that. His second term was really very close to a disaster. He had a sputtering economy throughout most of those four years. He got himself into a war that he couldn't win and couldn't get out of, which is poison in electoral terms. And he had - his administration was beset by a lot of sort of petty corruption on the part of his own pals from Kansas City that he'd installed in governmental jobs for which they weren't suited.

DONVAN: Let's bring in some of our listeners, and Roger(ph) is joining us from Miami Beach. Hi, Roger, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ROGER: Yes, thank you. About changing minds about presidents, I changed my mind about LBJ. I was born in 1946, the first year of the baby boomers, so during the Vietnam War, I intensely disliked President Johnson. I even, I guess like many of my age at that time, got a dartboard with his image on it.

But now that I'm on Medicare, I look back, and as a liberal Democrat, which I've always been on those wonderful, Great Society programs, where government tried to help people, the civil rights laws that he passed, the Voting Rights Act, public accommodations, the education bills, Medicaid, Medicare, the things that he accomplished were terrific.

DONVAN: Roger, he of course, he of course withdrew from potential for re-election, he said he wasn't going to run, but if he had run again in 1968, would you have voted for him?

ROGER: Boy, that's a tough one. Against Nixon, yes. I would have voted for him against Nixon. I did vote for Humphrey in 1968, the first time that I was able to vote in the presidential election because of age. So I probably would have voted for him over Nixon, no question about it.

Again, I still would have resented greatly the - our presence in Vietnam. Those who fought, of course, did so very heroically. But again, I like many at that age thought it was misguided and he was misled by the military. But the domestic stuff that he did was wonderful.

DONVAN: Let's let Bob Merry talk about Lyndon Johnson.

MERRY: That's a very interesting point. Johnson really poses the conundrum of a historical assessment because what happens when you have a president who had tremendous accomplishments, as Johnson clearly did, he redirected the country no question about it, who then somehow manages to get himself into a situation that ends up being his undoing, his political undoing, which is also what happened to Johnson.

I mean, he wasn't as ignominious as Richard Nixon resigning in disgrace, but it was pretty close because he was essentially told by the American people that he was ineligible for rehire. And so the question then becomes: Well, do you sort of split the difference? Does the ignominy of Vietnam wipe out all of his good stuff? Well, no, you try to find a balance, and I think the historians have tried to do that.

DONVAN: Roger, thanks for your call. Ken.

RUDIN: And you think of what Johnson accomplished, John F. Kennedy could not accomplish, and yet when you look at popularity, at least, of former presidents, JFK is on almost everybody's list. And yet in an abbreviated presidency, a guy who didn't get that much done, how do you rate somebody like that?

MERRY: I think it's sentiment. I say in my book that you really can't assess Kennedy because we don't know what he would have been able to accomplish. I was taken to task by one reviewer who obviously didn't want to hear that. He wanted to hear that Kennedy, yes indeed, is very high in the estimation of history. I don't quite buy it.

DONVAN: We have an email from Jim, who says: I never voted for the elder Bush, but I now think he showed enormous political courage and good judgment in, number one, not going on to Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War, and number two, cutting a deal to reduce the budget that included raising taxes. Those decisions, of course, cost him re-election.

MERRY: The first one I would probably dispute. I don't think that cost him election. The second one, I think you could argue that it did, but only insofar as it led to an economic situation that was adverse to him politically. I don't have really high marks. I knew George Herbert Walker Bush. I covered him. I traveled to China with him. And I thought he was a very decent and honest man, and I thought this whole wimp factor on the Newsweek cover when he was running was terrible because he was a war hero.

But I never really thought that he really understood where America was going and where he needed to take it, and I have to say that during those four years, his eight years with Reagan, I got the impression that he and many of the people around him were sort of saying, gosh, when we get this dunce out of here, we're going to really show the American people how to run a country, and I don't think they were right about that.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Larry from Tampa. Hi, Larry. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

LARRY: Hi. Just want to start by saying I'm an independent. I'm neither liberal nor Democrats - or Republicans. At the time George W. Bush was elected, I felt he was the much better candidate, and I felt much happier when 9/11 happened because I thought he would be the one to get things done. However, when he invaded Iraq, I was horrified. I knew - everybody knew that's not where al-Qaida was, and then things like Gitmo and other things, I did a 180 on Dubya.

DONVAN: And you don't have to answer this, but when he came up for re-election, did you vote for him?

LARRY: No.

DONVAN: All right. Up and then down. Bob?

MERRY: No hesitation on that one. Well, I don't give George W. Bush very high marks. Sean Wilentz, the historian from Princeton, has written a piece in which he suggested George W. might in fact be judged by history as being our worst or among our very, very worst presidents. I don't know about that. But here's what I'd say about him. He was re-elected because he had a moderately successful first term. The economy was doing OK, not thriving but doing OK.

The problems ensuing from the Iraq invasion had not really become manifest to the American people, so they re-elected him, and there's a logic in that. His second term was, I think, clearly a disaster, both in terms of foreign policy and in terms of the economy. And you know, he was not a Republican in terms of his fiscal policies.

RUDIN: Bob, I'm surprised that everybody is not calling in asking about James Knox Polk. Now, I know a lot of - the criteria is you had to have two terms for the most part. Polk was a one-termer, and you've written about him. And he's among your favorites. Explain to me why James Knox Polk.

MERRY: Well, I think James Knox Polk is clearly in the near-great category. He was a one-termer by choice. He was the only president who actually ran on a one-term promise, largely because he wanted to get the big-name Republican - I'm sorry, the big-name Democrats in his party behind him in the election, and he was afraid if they all thought he was going to be in for eight years, they would undermine him. But nevertheless, he accomplished a huge amount in four years.

He expanded our territorial country by a third, and he cut tariff rates, which was a big deal in those days. He created the independent treasury, the forerunner to the Federal Reserve. So he was a very successful president.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Crystal from Portland, Oregon. Hi, Crystal. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CRYSTAL: Just groaning to myself as I was listening to that last part. I didn't get to hear some of what you spoke about, so I don't know if you have any insight into this. But first of all, Ken, thank you as usual for your great questions and your perspective. And then the other guy, I'm sorry. I didn't get your name.

MERRY: Bob Merry.

CRYSTAL: Bob Merry.

MERRY: Yeah.

CRYSTAL: I do not envy your work. I mean, this is looking back on history. As a former sociologist, I'd say that, you know, opinion polls, really, based on how you phrase the questions and...

MERRY: Do you have a - do yourself...

CRYSTAL: Yeah.

MERRY: ...have a president.

CRYSTAL: I mean, I'm just looking on my own experience and maybe my forefathers, my mother and my grandmother. And you know, I was incredibly disappointed about Clinton, but that was my coming-of-age period, and I got my eyes opened. But I'd say that definitely Carter - I've always liked him, even as a kid, and even though his - he sucked later, why he didn't get re-elected, but basically what he's doing now is exactly what I always expected him to do, and he's been a hero of mine since I was a kid.

DONVAN: Interesting.

MERRY: Well, he's one of the greatest ex-presidents we've ever had. Unfortunately, to be a great ex-president you have to be president. And if you're not particularly a good president, that's not a good path to becoming ex-president from the country's standpoint.

DONVAN: So, Bob...

CRYSTAL: But you can't be president of the United States and be effective as a real worker for social justice.

DONVAN: Bob, so you don't count the years afterwards in your ranking?

MERRY: No. I'm talking about presidential performance.

DONVAN: Yeah, yeah. All right. We also have an email from another - another one on Bill Clinton. Stephen writes: I changed my evaluation of Bill Clinton as president. I was favorable during his tenure. But looking back from now, we can see that some of the seeds of the financial crisis were sown then, particularly by Bill Clinton's signing of legislation that deregulated the financial industry and led to many of the abuses that brought the economy down. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

MERRY: I think that's a fair point. Here's what I would say about Clinton. His first two years were a disaster, and he, like Obama, had his head handed to him by the voters in 1994. What ensued, however, was really quite brilliant. He very carefully calibrated a center-left approach to governing, and he did it very effectively, and he had six solid years as president of the United States. Now, I think he had two serious weaknesses. One, which people aren't going to be surprised at, was his lack of self-control, which brought about a really kind of smarmy scandal.

Whatever you think about what the Republicans were doing in the impeachment in Congress, and I thought it was monumentally stupid, nevertheless a lot of Americans were just not comfortable to have their president behaving quite like that. Secondly, however, and more significantly, he horded political capital. He built up a fair amount of political capital with his success over his last six years, but he didn't really expend it because he didn't want to take risks. He just wanted to sort of coast as president, and the result was he didn't really accomplish very much, and so he was a good president but not a great president.

DONVAN: You know, Chris will say it would be hard for you to go back and do all those work. I think it's hard for these guys to be judged by you. You're a pretty tough critic on them.

MERRY: I'm tough on these guys, but I love them all.

DONVAN: All right. I want to thank you for joining us. Ken Rudin, as always, Political Junkie, thank you. And Bob Merry, editor of National Interest magazine and author of "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians." Thanks for joining us here in Studio 3A, Bob. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.