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How Do Historians Assess Ronald Reagan?

As we begin a new year and a new millennium, it is time to just say no to simple assessments of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Of course, some observers will continue to think that Reagan deserves a place on Mount Rushmore, while others will still dismiss him as an"amiable dunce." But Reagan's presidential record defies easy categorization. How do you evaluate someone who could see in an instant from Gorbachev's smile that this Soviet leader was somehow different, but who couldn't recognize his own secretary of Housing and Urban Development at a White House reception? Or how do you balance the inspiring leadership that Reagan showed when he stood before the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin and declared,"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," with the moral obtuseness that he revealed when he insisted that Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust and SS troops were both victims of Hitler's tyranny?

Historians have had difficulty assessing Reagan's contradictory record. The most recent poll of scholars, completed three years ago, placed Reagan in the"average" category, far below the greatness of Washington and Lincoln but comfortably above the failures of Harding and Buchanan. Yet this composite ranking is misleading, since many members of the panel thought that Reagan was anything but average. Seven of the thirty-two jurors considered Reagan's record"near great," but nine thought he was a"below average" chief executive. Four consigned his presidency to"failure."

Surely these polarized evaluations remind us that there are no universal standards for evaluating presidential performance. Even criteria that gained wide acceptance, such as those advanced forty years ago in Richard Neustadt's masterly study of Presidential Power, tended to generalize too much from the"active" leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt, while slighting the"passive" stewardship of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Yet whatever standards scholars might use to rate presidents, none is objective. Historians try to be fair and judicious, but their evaluations necessarily reflect personal values and cultural norms. Presidential reputations wax and wane not only because we learn more as previously restricted archives and personal papers become available, but also because we alter our views of what constitutes success in the Oval Office. It's no accident that Eisenhower, once derided for providing little more than inertia during the supposed complacency of the 1950s, now looks better simply for avoiding the excesses of his imperial successors.

Reagan rarely spoke or wrote about presidential greatness. But on one of the few occasions when he did, the 250th anniversary of George Washington's birth, Reagan invoked criteria that are as good, if not better, than most others."He did more than live up to the standards of the time," Reagan proclaimed of Washington,"He set them." The first president was able to do so because he possessed"a vision of the future" and"exceptional character."


In many ways, Reagan was far more ordinary than he was exceptional. He possessed only modest intellectual gifts, and he used them indifferently. What impressed more was his smile, sincerity, and soothing rhetoric, talents he honed as an actor and as a spokesperson for the General Electric Company.

But Reagan cared deeply about some issues, and by the early 1960s he had developed a clear, conservative philosophy, whose core was opposition to big government and the evils of communism and that guided him throughout his political career. As president, he possessed an unshakeable certainty that his vision of the future would prevail -- that tax cuts would produce prosperity even as the recession of the early 1980s deepened; that communism would ultimately be relegated to"the ash-heap of history," as he predicted in 1982, even as the Cold War grew more intense.

With remarkable effectiveness, Reagan set the political agenda for the 1980s. The issues that he considered most important -- including tax reform, deregulation, reductions in social welfare programs, and increases in defense spending -- dominated the politics of the decade. Reagan was brilliant and beguiling in rallying support for his programs. But his public pronouncements, often laced with assertions of principle and moral certainty, masked a tactical flexibility that was one of his most notable assets as president. Reagan, despite his unconventional background, was hardly just an actor who happened to be good at saying his lines. He was an accomplished and resourceful politician.


Yet before we place Reagan alongside Washington, we should remember that even the Great Communicator could not persuasively explain some of the major contradictions in his own record. Reagan never submitted a balanced budget to Congress despite his commitment to fiscal restraint, and the national debt tripled during his presidency. While insisting that his administration would never negotiate with terrorists, the president secretly approved the trading of weapons for hostages that became public knowledge during the Iran-contra scandal. And although he expressed a genuine compassion for the poor -- a sympathy so great that he occasionally sent personal checks to people who wrote to him about their privations -- his policies exacerbated the disparity between rich and poor.

However we assess this complex and sometimes puzzling record, we ought to do so with caution and modesty and with a clear sense that our judgments must be provisional. In recent years we have learned to appreciate, in the phrase of historian John Lewis Gaddis,"the unexpected Ronald Reagan." The fervent anti-communist who condemned the Evil Empire surprisingly became Gorbachev's partner in ending the Cold War. The opponent of the nuclear freeze movement actually abhorred nuclear weapons, so much so that he discussed their complete elimination at his summit conference with Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986 and signed the INF treaty in 1987 that liquidated all U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

As the Presidential Records Act leads to faster and more predictable opening of documents at the Reagan Library, there are indications that we might expect more of the unexpected. Our first glimpses at the President's Handwriting File, for example, have challenged some of the myths about Reagan's lethargy. Reagan was notorious for his"hands-off" and disengaged style of administration, even to the point that he joked about nodding off at cabinet meetings. Yet Reagan's newly opened files show that the president answered much of his correspondence himself, not just to long-time friends but occasionally to ordinary citizens who sent letters of praise or complaint. While many of Reagan's most memorable phrases came from the brilliant speech writer Peggy Noonan, quite a few of the president's speeches contain long passages that came from Reagan's own pen. And while there's no doubt that Reagan took naps and frequent vacations, the paper trail shows that he spent hours on the phone or meeting face-to-face with undecided or wavering members of Congress as crucial votes approached.

That Reagan often spoke from scripts that he wrote, rather than those others prepared for him, hardly makes his ideas profound or wise. And it is still not clear, aside from a few crucial issues like the Strategic Defense Initiative, exactly what role the president played in the evolution of policy. But it seems a safe bet that the documents that will be the foundation of the new Reagan scholarship will force us to reconsider some of our familiar views of Reagan.

Evaluating the Reagan presidency is challenging and controversial. While it may be tempting -- maybe even unavoidable -- to use the standard categories of"great,""average," and"failure," these terms seem to fit an unconventional leader like Reagan even less than most presidents. For now, maybe we should be content with recognizing that Reagan was an exceptional president who will continue to surprise us.

This article first ran on tompaine.com in 2000.