Clin­ton ahead of Rea­gan? Aca­demics rank the pres­i­dents yet again

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAVID ELDRIDGE

Call it his­tory’s con­ser­va­tive curse.

Ac­cord­ing to a Univer­sity of Mi­ami study, those his­tor­i­cal rank­ings of Amer­i­can pres­i­dents that pop up ev­ery year or so are sig­nif­i­cantly weighted in fa­vor of Democrats, thanks to the lib­eral lean­ings of academia.

Po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor Joseph E. Uscinski, one of the study’s au­thors, said the lat­est anal­y­sis shows that the over­whelm­ingly lib­eral aca­demic com­mu­nity con­sis­tently ranks Repub­li­can pres­i­dents about 10 spots lower than the pub­lic would.

“I don’t think any­one is sur­prised,” Mr. Uscinski told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “Among the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists and his­to­ri­ans that I work with, Democrats out­num­ber Repub­li­cans 8-to-1.”

What was eye-open­ing, he said, was the stark dif­fer­ence be­tween the his­to­ri­ans’ as­sess­ments of Repub­li­cans and the grades given by the pub­lic.

“On av­er­age, all the Repub­li­cans get the short end of the stick,” he said. “But the one it im­pacts the most is [Ron­ald] Rea­gan. It’s of­ten dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to fathom why he’s ranked as low as he is.”

The Univer­sity of Mi­ami re­port, to be pub­lished in the schol­arly jour­nal White House Stud­ies, looks at pres­i­den­tial rank­ings from his­to­rian Arthur Sch­lesinger’s sem­i­nal 1948 sur­vey through more re­cent polls, in­clud­ing the Wall Street Jour­nal’s 2005 list and C-SPAN’s 2009 sur­vey.

In the C-SPAN rank­ings, the fo­cus of much of the Univer­sity of Mi­ami anal­y­sis, Rea­gan in 2009 broke into the top 10, be­hind Abra­ham Lin­coln, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, Theodore Roo­sevelt, Harry S. Tru­man, John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jef­fer­son, Dwight Eisen­hower and Woodrow Wil­son.

On other sur­veys, the con­ser­va­tive icon falls much lower. A 2010 Siena Col­lege poll has Rea­gan at No. 18, be­hind Bill Clin­ton, Lyn­don B. John­son and Barack Obama.

Down­grad­ing the per­for­mance of Rea­gan and other Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing Ger­ald Ford, Richard M. Nixon, Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Ge­orge W. Bush, has an im­pact on how peo­ple view the pres­i­dency to­day and in the fu­ture, Mr. Uscinski said.

“When pro­gres­sive or lib­eral pres­i­den­cies dom­i­nate these lists, those at­tributes be­gin to be associated with the cri­te­ria of what makes a great pres­i­dent,” he said.

His­to­ri­ans read­ily con­cede that their col­leagues lean to­ward the po­lit­i­cal left. That doesn’t mean their con­clu­sions or as­sess­ments are in­cor­rect, though, his­to­rian Jef­frey Kim­ball said.

“When you’re talk­ing about judg­ing pres­i­dents, you’re talk­ing about judg­ing pol­i­tics,” said Mr. Kim­ball, a pro­fes­sor at Mi­ami Univer­sity of Ohio and au­thor of “The Viet­nam War Files: Un­cov­er­ing the Se­cret His­tory of Nixon-Era Strat­egy.”

Ev­ery­one has a sub­jec­tive point of view, he said, “but does that mean that none of us are ca­pa­ble of a de­tached point of view? I don’t think that’s the case.”

Wayne State Univer­sity his­to­rian Melvin Small, who has spent much of his ca­reer fo­cused on the John­son and Nixon pres­i­den­cies, agreed.

“All his­to­ri­ans, left or right, bring their own bi­ases to these kinds of things,” he said. But he pointed out that Rea­gan’s re­views have im­proved in re­cent sur­veys.

“Give him time,” he said. “His­to­ri­ans to­day rank Ge­orge W. Bush near the bot­tom. His has to be, at this point, con­sid­ered a failed pres­i­dency. But it is pos­si­ble that he, like Rea­gan, will start to move up.”

Joan Hoff, a fem­i­nist his­to­rian and for­mer pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for the Study of the Pres­i­dency, said the whole de­bate about how ide­ol­ogy af­fects the way his­to­ri­ans as­sess pres­i­dents is miss­ing the point.

“It’s not pol­i­tics; it’s war. War is the big de­ter­min­ing fac­tor,” she said. High-rank­ing Democrats such as Wil­son, Franklin Roo­sevelt and Tru­man just hap­pen to have served at times of con­flict, she said.

His­to­ri­ans, she said, are like much of the vot­ing pub­lic, they are se­duced by im­age.

“Look at how highly JFK ranks. His ac­com­plish­ments in of­fice were prac­ti­cally nil,” she said. But Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing aca­demics, love the im­age.

“Ma­cho, heroic pres­i­dents, Kennedy, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, do well on these lists,” she said, adding that it’s why Rea­gan is mov­ing up. She said con­ser­va­tives have cre­ated a Rea­gan myth that has lit­tle to do with sub­stance.

“You hear con­stantly that he ended the Cold War, which is not ac­tu­ally true,” she said.

She doesn’t put much stock into the idea that the rank­ings mat­ter, ei­ther in the cul­ture as a whole or in the world of se­ri­ous his­tor­i­cal re­search.

“I just don’t see any real im­pact what­so­ever,” she said.

Gil Troy, au­thor of “Lead­ing From the Cen­ter: Why Mod­er­ates Make the Best Pres­i­dents,” said the de­bate over pres­i­den­tial rank­ings shouldn’t be taken too se­ri­ously.

“I call it the ‘Pres­i­den­tial Stock Mar­ket,’ where the val­ues of a pres­i­dency, over time, ebb and flow,” he said. “But it’s a very healthy dis­cus­sion to have. The pres­i­dency is a larger-than-life of­fice, and the men who serve there make up, in large part, the Amer­i­can pan­theon.

“And we al­ways want to know who is in the pan­theon, and why they are there.”

The New York City na­tive, now a Univer­sity of Mon­treal pro­fes­sor, said he doesn’t mind the in­her­ent silli­ness or sub­jec­tiv­ity of a top 10 list.

“As an ed­u­ca­tor, I have to ad­mit I’m glad to see my stu­dents take up these dis­cus­sions,” he said, “if it means that we’re talk­ing about his­tory in­stead of what Ash­ton Kutcher did last night.”

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