On December 15, 1996, the New York Times Magazine published Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s recent survey of 32 historians and other "experts." He had asked them to rate every U.S. president as "great," "near great," "average," "below average," or "failure."
Three presidents were ranked as "great": George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Six were rated "near great": Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman.
The most astonishing part of Schlesinger's poll was the low assessment his panel gave Bill Clinton's most illustrious recent predecessor: Ronald Reagan placed in the bottom half of the "average" category. Sharing this designation were Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, William Howard Taft, Chester A. Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison.
To be sure, Reagan generated anything but a consensus among the judges. Seven rated him "near great," eleven saw him as "average," nine considered him "below average," and four graded him a "failure." Still, something is amiss in Reagan's overall grade. A close inspection of Schlesinger's panel invites suspicion that participants were selected as much for the conclusions they were likely to reach as for their scholarly credentials.
Eminent presidential biographers Merrill D. Peterson (Jefferson), Robert V. Remini (Jackson), Arthur S. Link (Wilson), and Robert H. Ferrell (Truman) deservedly made the list. Authors sympathetic to the New Deal and its legacy, such as James MacGregor Burns, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Alan Brinkley, were represented in abundance. Also there were Lyndon Johnson enthusiast Robert Dallek and left-of-center historian Eric Foner. To top it off, the panel included two liberal Democratic politicians, former New York governor Mario Cuomo and former Illinois senator Paul Simon. Forrest McDonald was the only conservative scholar represented.
Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship asked a number of leading authorities on the presidency whether they agreed with the Schlesinger panel's assessment of Reagan. Their answers follow.
William F. Buckley Jr.: Reagan had the best intuitive sense of priorities of any president in the postwar period, when it became a constant struggle to know what to pay attention to. His designation of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" froze the blood of international diplomacy, but agitated the moral imagination and did more to advance U.S. national objectives than a year's Pentagon spending. Speaking of which, Reagan was exactly correct in knowing that the resources of the U.S. could not be matched by those of the enemy. His willingness to install theater weapons in Europe, to explore anti-missile technology, and to commit great sums to defense effectively disarmed the potential aggressor. And then who, more resonantly than he, made the case against Big Government? Could he have known that a Democratic president, seven years after Reagan left office, would serve as an echo chamber on the matter of an end to Big Government?
Reagan belongs on Mount Rushmore, and he'll be there, after the carpers die off.
A.M. Rosenthal: There was a communist empire and it was evil. Ronald Reagan did as much as any leader in the world to help bring about the end of that empire. He also proved it false, as the Clinton administration now claims in the case of China, that struggling against a foreign dictatorship necessitates consigning to total isolation. President Reagan was able both to keep up the pressure on the Soviet Union militarily, economically, and politically and to maintain contact with its leaders because it was to their interest to do so. I think all this certainly raises Mr. Reagan to the status of above average.
I think it is silly for contemporaries of a president to try to fit him into a permanent historical niche. I would expect that, as time went on, history, if not the historians, will judge him as near-great for his contribution to the downfall of the evil empire.
Henry Kissinger: Reagan's was a near-great presidency that reversed the dominant trends of domestic policy. In foreign policy, he combined hard-headed realism with Wilsonian idealism that hastened victory in the Cold War.
Jeane Kirkpatrick: Nothing but liberal prejudice can prevent some dis- tinguished Democrats (which most historians are) from discerning the extraordinary achievements of Ronald Reagan. I mention just two: his crucial role in rebuilding American and Western military strength after a period of Western decline and Soviet expansion, and his great success in demonstrating the superiority of free markets and free societies over socialism --especially, but not only, Marxist socialism. His leadership in these achievements strengthened peace and expanded freedom.
This is a president whose deliberate policies produced seven years of economic growth...after Democratic economists said that was impossible.
Michael Barone: Reagan clearly deserves a rating of near-great. This is a president whose deliberate policies produced seven years of economic growth with low inflation after Democratic economists said that was impossible and won the Cold War when almost no one in either party believed that could hap- pen. These were not just accidents. They were the intended results of policies adopted and supervised by Reagan personally, very often against the advice or attempted manipulation of his own advisers. Anyone who doubts that Reagan took charge on these issues should consult David Stockman's The Triumph of Politics on economics and Lou Cannon's Reagan and Don Oberdorfer's The Turn on policy toward Russia.
Forrest McDonald: I was one of the 32 historians Schlesinger asked for a rank- ing, and I was one of the seven who ranked Reagan as near great. My reasons were Reagan's monumental achievement in bringing about the destruction of the Evil Empire and, domestically, his making the nation hold its head high again.
Martin Anderson: One hundred years from now, when reasonably objective historians look back, they will rank Reagan as a great president, right up there with Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Why? Because, like those three, he presided over epochal changes: On Reagan's watch, the philosophical idea of communism went belly up, the Soviet empire collapsed, and the threat of global nuclear war vanished.
Joshua Muravchik: Just as a body of conservative opinion was unable to recon- cile itself with "that man in the White House" (FDR), a mirror-image body of liberal opinion has treated Reagan in the same way, utterly blind to the greatness of his presidency, which deserves to be ranked with Roosevelt's. Never mind the accumulated federal debt, nor even the pathetic self-deception about trading arms for hostages. The big picture is that Reagan assumed office when America's Cold War strategy of containment was crumbling, and its morale and self-confidence was at a nadir. Reagan reversed all that and led us to victory over the mightiest foe we have ever faced.
George H. Nash: As the 1980s recede into history, three achievements of Ronald Reagan loom larger. In a time of dangerous drift and malaise, he restored Americans' sense of self-confidence and greatness. He transmuted American con- servatism from theory to practice, undermined the intellectual pretensions of long-regnant liberalism, and decisively shifted the paradigm of political dis- course for the rest of the 20th century. Above all, he mobilized the resources -- rhetorical, military, and diplomatic -- that put Soviet communism on the road to extinction. As time passes, Reagan's stature rises -- a sure sign that he will be remembered as one of our most successful and important presidents.
Alonzo L. Hamby: In general, historians probably should abstain from ranking presidents elected during their adult lifetimes. They are, after all, no more exempt from ideological conviction and partisan inclination than the regular contributors to the New York Times op-ed page. In practice, however, none of us observe that rule, so here goes.
When passions cool after a generation or so, Ronald Reagan will be widely accepted by historians as a near-great chief executive. The faults of his presidency have been amply publicized. Supply-side economics was at best a partial success, because the president was better at talking about reducing government than actually accomplishing the goal; the result was a manageable but undeniably burdensome increase in the national debt. Americans, moreover, while not wanting a president to be a micromanager, generally expect a higher degree of engagement than Reagan demonstrated with many of the issues of his presidential tenure. Yet Reagan uplifted a depressed national spirit with his rhetoric, revived a sick economy, and established a policy course that won the Cold War. He may not end up on Mount Rushmore, but more than any other presi- dent since Truman, he will be a contender.…