The publication of
two recent collections of letters written by Ronald Reagan has helped reignite
the debate not only about his level of intellect, but also whether he was
a great or average president.
This is a fascinating debate because Reagan was a highly divisive president
who had a reputation, particularly among the liberal media, of intellectual
laziness. The popular conception, again among the media and the left, was
that he was a puppet carefully manipulated by Jim Baker, Michael Deaver and
Donald Regan, not to mention a variety of others who sought to use him for
their own political gain.
Some biographers who had personal contact with him, such as Peggy Noonan,
admit that he was both a simple yet removed man, difficult to get to know,
and yet always familiar. One could not separate the persona from the inner
man. The actor was the part.
But the letters suggest an even more complicated reality. They suggest a
man far more intellectually engaged than popularly believed. That Reagan
himself enjoyed playing to the media's stereotypes about him suggests a level
of self confidence unmatched in recent times. Reagan was not disconnected
from reality, but from Washington self importance. It was not that Reagan
did not care about real issues, it was that he did not believe the most important
things in life flowed out of Washington. That is why he was at turns amused
and oblivious to all the political game-playing and Monday morning quarterbacking
that make or break reputations in the power capital of the world.
In reviewing the most recent collection of his letters, Dear Americans: Letters from the Desk of Ronald Reagan, writers give the president mixed reviews. Joe Sobran, once a senior editor of National Review,
calls Reagan an "average" man and not a particularly great president, though
he admits to liking him. "Reagan wasn't a great president," Sobran writes.
`Great' presidents, as usually conceived, are unconstitutional. I like to
think Reagan understood this. At least I'm pretty sure he was the last president
who even glanced at the Constitution once in a while."
This is an interesting take from a Constitutional conservative. A great president
by popular definition is one who exceeds the strictures of the Constitution,
therefore Reagan only marginally qualifies. Peter Robinson, host of the PBS
show Uncommon Knowledge, who has published an entire book on how Reagan inspired
him, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. It is a personal reflection but touches on some of the themes of Reagan's leadership style. Dinesh D'Souza wrote Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, arguing that Reagan was in fact a great president.
Moving from memoirs to polls, we also find a diversity of opinion. The Federalist Society/Wall Street Journal
poll ranks George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt as
the three greatest presidents. Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew
Jackson, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and James Polk round
out the top 10. Woodrow Wilson ranks 11th, and John Kennedy 18th. Bill Clinton
ranks 24th, just below George Bush (the first) who comes in at 21.
Meanwhile, the Siena Research Institute poll of scholars, conducted in August
of 2002, ranks the top 10 in order: FDR, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Washington,
Jefferson, Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower, Madison and Kennedy. Ronald Reagan
finished at 16, two spots ahead of Clinton. A published book of rankings,
called Rating the Presidents, compiled by Stuart B. McIver and William J.
Ridings, gives Reagan even worse marks, pushing him all the way down to 26.
Not exactly a failure, but not even in the top half of American presidents.
The Zogby Presidential Greatness Poll, which taps the opinions of registered
voters of modern presidents since FDR, has FDR and JFK at the top, with Truman,
Reagan and Eisenhower rounding out the top five. (I excluded from consideration
the current president.) In short, Reagan beats out Carter and Nixon, but
not JFK and Truman.
Frankly, I find the debate a bit baffling. One can argue whether Reagan belongs
on Mount Rushmore, but it is difficult to comprehend how Bill Clinton, for
example, can in some polls rank higher than Reagan, or how FDR can be elevated
to one of the top two or three in virtually every poll, while Reagan falls
all the way to the twenties in others. Here is one student's top ten, with
1. George Washington
Probably not much argument that the founding president belongs in the top
five. In my mind, he is number one because of one precedent-setting decision
-- he did not accept the crown or even a third term as president, and set
in motion the peaceful and Constitutional transition of power. All that has
flowed from this nation since is rooted in that crucial decision.
2. Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln not only wrote the best speeches in our history, he also shepherded
the nation through a horrific civil war and ended slavery, thus bringing
our nation closer to its true destiny as a land of the free. I know all the
arguments about his violation of certain Constitutional premises and simply
submit that we were in the midst of a great conflict that required him to
take extraordinary measures to preserve the Union. He was a great man even
before he was martyred, but that he died doing his duty certainly added a
traffic dimension to his unquestioned greatness.
3. Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson is always rated high. I admit that my own choice for him is rooted
not only in his role as president, but in his total contributions to the
nation. However, the Louisiana Purchase and the mythology that grew up around
him as a Democrat and an agrarian greatly shaped our nation's sense of purpose
and place. Though Hamilton eventually won the day with his federalist/commercial
system, Jefferson continues to inspire our dreams in the midst of industrial
and commercial excess. He also played a role in stabilizing the nation during
the transition from the Federalist to the Democratic-Republicans, as the
party was known then.
4. Franklin Roosevelt
FDR is a complex president to evaluate, especially for conservatives. He
brought us the New Deal, which is heresy for the conservative position as
I understand it. On the other hand, had he not done so, would we have survived
the Great Depression? Marches on Washington were serious then and the times
were serious. FDR reassured the nation. He deserves credit for that. He also
led us through World War II, again, in able fashion. That he failed to deal
with Stalin effectively is a major blemish, but the options were not easy
after six years of devastating world war. His attempts to manipulate the
Constitution also deserve serious scrutiny.
5. Theodore Roosevelt
here. TR brought our nation into the modern era and helped transform it into
a global power, for good or ill. He was a legendary figure who animated American
politics for almost 20 years. He also established our national parks system,
instituted needed reforms in a variety of industries and set an example that
Republicans might heed -- that we are not all slaves to corporate interests,
this at a time when industrialism was the dominant force in American life.
The great trust buster was his own man, and despite some excesses, deserves
to be in the top five.
Email George Shadroui
6. Ronald Reagan
I will take heat for this one from those who trust academics more than their
common sense. But Ronald Reagan deserves top 10 billing. Margaret Thatcher
claims he won the Cold War without firing a shot. In the early 1990s, materials
gleaned from Soviet archives confirmed that Reagan's tough stance against
the Soviet Union helped push the reform movements in the Soviet Union and
the policies launched by Gorbachav. Certainly, Gorbachav deserves credit
as well for ending totalitarianism as we knew it then, but Reagan was instrumental.
His moral clarity set the tone. Moreover, he helped revitalize American democracy
after Vietnam and Watergate, put in place policies that set our nation on
a near 20 year economic boom, and reintroduced the notion of limited government.
Not a bad record for an "average" man.
7. Dwight Eisenhower
Another underrated president because, like Reagan, he did not always appear
to take power seriously. But the general not only led us through World War
II militarily, at least on one front, he had the nerve to lead us through
eight tough Cold War years. He established the interstate system, which shapes
are lives daily, enforced anti-segregation laws, and later would warn us
of the military industrial complex even as he oversaw one of the great economic
periods in American history.
8. Harry Truman
Truman gets high marks in most polls. He was instrumental in ending World
War II, helped formulate the policy of containment, and spearheaded the Marshall
plan and the rebuilding of Europe. He might be overrated, but for now let's
hear the arguments for and against.
9. Woodrow Wilson
Any president who sees his country through a great war is bound to get bonus
points. Wilson qualifies. He also envisioned a post-war world in which nations
dealt with each other in a constructive way. Had his advice to impose an
easier, friendlier peace been followed, arguably, Hitler might never have
come to power in Germany. His League of Nations was ahead of its time. Whatever
one thinks of the United Nations and its limitations, it was a visionary
idea that Wilson tried to bring to fruition.
10. John Kennedy
Kennedy gets a high rating for two reasons: he pushed the space program and
was the last liberal who actually believed in America's destiny to lead the
free world. He kept the Soviet Union out of Cuba, and inspired millions of
Americans. His speeches still echo through the heartland, and gave meaning
to the best ideals of our nation. He was admired, as well, by peoples around
the world who saw in him, right or wrong, the best of America. I admit that
to some extent this is a sentimental choice. I lived in Dallas when the fatal
shots were fired and upon further reflection might well move him down on
These selections are slanted perhaps toward modern presidents who governed
during a period of American predominance. Many published ratings give James
Polk high marks, probably because he helped expand the nation across the
West, bringing California, through his war with Mexico, into the Union. Andrew
Jackson also gets high marks in many polls, for he helped open up parts of
the frontier, scared secessionists enough to delay Civil War and helped bring
a more pure form of democracy to American politics. I have doubts about Jackson
myself. He allowed himself to alienate his entire cabinet in the Eaton affair,
a petty social snafu, and waged a brutal war of extermination against Native
Grover Cleveland was a president known for his careful management of the
economy and also his tough stand against corruption. At a time when it surely
wasn't popular, he even tried to honor agreements with Native Americans who
had been made promises by the federal government. Madison withstood challenges
from Britain and France at a time when this nation was still vulnerable,
and Monroe established the doctrine that our hemisphere was not up for grabs
among the world powers.
But any way you look at it, Ronald Reagan presided over extraordinary times
and helped propel this nation to a great victory over the greatest tyranny
of our age. Whether he was a closet Bill Buckley or just an average guy who
had an intuitive understanding of our Constitution and our nation, he is
well deserving of being considered one of our great presidents. Rebuttals
Shadroui has been published in more than two
dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com.
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