Now that the eulogies have been delivered and Ronald Reagan laid to his final rest, the historical debate begins. Where does the Gipper rank among America’s presidents?
Much depends on one’s political bias, of course. Nearly everybody seems to agree he was an uplifting presence, and even Ted Kennedy gives him credit for helping to end the Cold War, which alone would seem to place Mr. Reagan in the top rank. But then the consensus starts fraying: Liberals cite, among other things, the “Reagan deficits,” while conservatives want to place him on Mount Rushmore, or at least the $20 bill.
Mr. Reagan’s two landslide elections, as well as the tens of thousands of ordinary Americans who filed past his bier in recent days, certainly rank him among the most popular presidents. But John F. Kennedy rates very high in polls, despite historians’ growing consensus his tragically shortened presidency lacked sufficient substance. More time may be needed to gain perspective on the Reagan presidency as well.
In a 1996 ranking of presidents organized by liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Mr. Reagan placed 25th out of 39 presidents up for review. (Several were omitted because of the briefness of their tenure.) Mr. Schlesinger surveyed 30 historians and two politicians, New York Democrat Mario Cuomo and the late Illinois Democratic Sen. Paul Simon. John Kennedy, whom Mr. Schlesinger had served as official White House historian, perhaps not surprisingly came in No. 12.
Academic historians tilt heavily towards the liberal side of the spectrum, however. So in 2000 two conservative organizations, the Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society, tried to correct for that by sending out questionnaires to what they termed an ideologically balanced list of 30 historians (including Mr. Schlesinger), 25 political scientists and 23 law professors.
The results have been summarized in a subsequent book, “Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House” (Free Press). The book includes essays on most of the presidents. They range from conservative author Richard Brookhiser (on George Washington, naturally rated first) to British historian Paul Johnson (on Bill Clinton, rated 24th ) to humorist Christopher Buckley (on last-place James Buchanan, of whom Mr. Buckley concludes it was just as well he was “our only bachelor president”). I wrote the chapter on Jerry Ford, rated by the experts as No. 28. Mr. Reagan places eighth on this list, ahead of Dwight Eisenhower but just below Harry Truman. The three presidents rated “Great” are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Also ahead of Mr. Reagan among the “Near Greats” are Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson.
Eighth place is nothing to sneeze at in such company. But as the years since Mr. Reagan’s tenure lengthen into decades, it’s likely to shift. In a fascinating accompanying essay, Northwestern law professor and statistician James Lindgren notes 16 survey respondents said Mr. Reagan was the most underrated president, while 23 said he was the most overrated. (Compared to 43 who found Kennedy the most overrated.) So Mr. Reagan’s ranking could decline.
But an even better case can be made that Mr. Reagan’s reputation will continue growing. His economic theories still dominate the political landscape — not only at home but around the world. His claim to ending the Cold War without firing a shot seems to be holding up. (Would Franklin Roosevelt have ranked higher or lower had he built up U.S. defenses enough to chase Adolf Hitler from office without a world war?)
And despite the groaning about deficits, Mr. Reagan reduced spending slightly as a proportion of gross domestic product. It took a lot longer to grow out of the deficit than Mr. Reagan predicted, but ultimately that’s pretty much what happened.
Too, just as Teddy Roosevelt’s near greatness rests in large part on launching a new political movement, known as Progressivism, Mr. Reagan articulated a powerful countermovement that challenges the notion big government is always wiser or more efficient than markets. One result has been growing Republican dominance in Washington and statehouses. The movement is still growing and evolving, even as much of the Progressivism program didn’t reach fruition until the New Deal three decades later. As it plays out, it holds a promise of a real solution to deficits: recognition unchecked government spending threatens fundamental American values.
When rating the presidents, though, it pays to remember not many of the 43 men who have occupied that office got there without something to recommend them. Political scientist Thomas Cronin notes in “Presidential Leadership” that while “At least two dozen individuals have served with distinction, only a few have been grossly inadequate.”
Thus the real hero of U.S. politics remains the American voters, who mostly have chosen their leaders wisely. It’s a view for which Mr. Reagan often expressed total support — another reason he is held in such esteem by the average American.
Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.