RONALD WILSON REAGAN flew cheerfully into the California sunset on January 20, 1989, basking in the glow of national esteem as he returned home after eight years as president of the United States. In the last Gallup Poll of his presidency Reagan had a public approval rating of 63 percent, the highest for any president leaving office since Franklin D. Roosevelt died early in his fourth term. The New York Times-CBS Poll gave Reagan an approval rating of 68 percent.
In all his guises and careers, Reagan valued the response of the audience more than his critical notices. While few of his political decisions were poll- driven, he cared immensely about his standing with ordinary Americans and relatively little about the opinions of the experts. That was just as well for Reagan, for expert opinion in 1989 gave low marks to his presidency. Soon after Reagan left office, a national survey of academic historians and political scientists conducted by the Siena Research Institute ranked him twenty-second among the then-forty U.S. presidents. Even among the conservatives, Reagan's normally dependable political base, the verdict on his presidency was far from unanimous. At the time, influential conservatives worried that their hero had conceded too much to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; some were also alarmed about his economic legacy.
The conservatives have since come back to Reagan, either because they have learned to appreciate his legacy or simply because they miss him. They are not alone. As the Reagan presidency recedes into history, Americans of varied political persuasions have become nostalgic about The Gipper, as he was known to the White House press corps. In an August 1999 Gallup poll of adult Americans, a majority of those surveyed predicted that Reagan will rank higher in the history books than other modern presidents. (The poll spanned presidents from Richard Nixon through Bill Clinton, excluding the unelected Gerald Ford.) Fifty-four percent of those polled said Reagan would be remembered as an "outstanding" or "above average" president. Only 12 percent said he would be ranked as "poor." And, although Alzheimer's disease prevents Reagan from knowing it, he has made headway even with the experts. Political historian James MacGregor Burns, famed for his books about Franklin Roosevelt, wrote in The Washington Post on October 24, 1999, that Reagan will rank with FDR among the "great" or "near-great" presidents of the twentieth century.
Ranking presidents is an imprecise exercise that is more controversial