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. …