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Reagan: a Great President or Not?
by George Shadroui
21 October 2003Ronald Reagan

Whether he was a closet Bill Buckley or just an average guy who had an intuitive understanding of our Constitution and our nation, Ronald Reagan is one of our great presidents.


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 some explanation.

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

No surprise 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.

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 the list. 

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 Americans.

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 welcomed.


George Shadroui has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com
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