On Dec. 15, 1996, the New York Times Magazine published a survey of 32 historians and other "experts" conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. When asked to rate U.S. presidents as "great," "near great," "average," "below average," or "failure," President Ronald Reagan was placed in the bottom half of the "average" category.
Wth the former president's birthday coming up Feb. 6, this is as good a time as any to ask whether "average" is an objective assessment of Reagan? 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.
Authors sympathetic to the liberal New Deal and its legacy of expanded government, 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. The panel was generally devoid of Republicans, who might have provided a different perspective. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Newt Gingrich, George Will, William Kristol, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and William Bennett -- all with Ph.D.s -- were excluded.
If a panel excluding Democrats or liberals were convened by, say, the conservative publication National Review, and presumed to rate Franklin Roosevelt as "average," the liberal reaction would be outrage -- and justifiably so. To set the record straight, 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:
Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977: "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, former U.S. representative to the United Nations: "Nothing but liberal prejudice can prevent some distinguished 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."
- A.M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times from 1977 to 1986: "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 ... 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."
Michael Barone, senior staff editor at Reader's Digest, co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, author of "Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan": "Reagan clearly deserves a rating of Near Great. This is a president whose deliberate policies produced seven years of low-inflation economic growth ... and won the Cold War when almost no one in either party believed that could happen. These were not just accidents. They were the intended results of policies adopted and supervised by Reagan personally ..."
Forrest McDonald, professor of history at the University of Alabama and the author of 15 books, including "The American Presidency: An Intellectual History": "I was one of the 32 historians Schlesinger asked for a ranking, 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, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University, former Reagan domestic and economic policy advisor: "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."
William F. Buckley Jr., founder and editor-at-large of National Review: " [Reagan's] designation of the Soviet Union as an 'evil empire' ... did more to advance U.S. national objectives than a year's Pentagon spending. 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."
Note: This essay by presidential scholar Alvin S. Felzenberg, Ph.D., is adapted from his article in the Heritage Foundation's magazine Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship.