Clinton ahead of Reagan? Academics rank the presidents yet again
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.”