Blogs > Cliopatria > Was He a Great President?

Jun 13, 2004 4:35 am

Was He a Great President?

The media, in search of a handy, bite-sized soundbite, are asking how Ronald Reagan ranks as a president.

Good question.

First, it is too soon to make a definitive judgment. Second, there are no definitive judgments. Third, I am still inclined to make two observations, which may seem in conflict.

One: Reagan was one of the two most important presidents of the 20th century. (The other being FDR, of course.)

Two: Reagan was too flawed a president to rank among the top of his peers. He simply made too many errors of fact (trees cause pollution), had too weak a grasp of reality (especially toward the end of his presidency), and was too apathetic about important issues like AIDS and civil rights to be considered first rate.

Evidence of his strength and weakness as a leader can be seen in the way he handled arms control negotiations. In 1982 he called on the Soviets to agree to cut all land-based nuclear weapons by half. The proposal went nowhere. Reagan at the time was baflled and upset. Only later, late in 1983, did he admit to astonished members of Congress that at the time he hadn't realized that most of the Soviet's nuclear forces were land-based (while ours were divided between land, sea and air). Thus, his proposal wasn't taken seriously as it required the Soviets to make far steeper cuts than the U.S.

But a few years later (1986) Reagan signed the first nuclear treaty with the Soviets that actually succeeded in cutting nuclear forces, eliminating an entiure class of nuclear weapons, intermediate range nuclear weapons.

So when the media ask ... Was Reagan a great president, I hesitate to say. The question is complicated because he was complicated ... more complicated than either his friends or enemies liked to admit. The Left insists that Reagan was a dangerous war-monger (remember Carter's alarmist complaints in 1980?). The Right thinks of Reagan as a simple conservative. But they were both wrong. He hated nuclear weapons as fiercely as the peaceniks who demonstrated against him in Europe in the early 80s. And he willingly compromised his conservative principles repeatedly. When he saw deficits rising he just ignored them, even though for 20 years he had railed against deficits. And as Michael Kinsley and others have pointed out, he never reduced the size of the federal government. At the end of his presidency there were 3 million people on the federal payroll--several hundred thousand more than when he began.

That people on both the Left and the Right think he was a cardboard cut-out of a president is a testament to his magical rhetorical flourishes. As all presidents would confess, you can't get anywhere with the American people unless you present them with a simple, easy-to-understand menu of choices. He did. Jimmy Carter, though putatively smarter, didn't figure this out until late in his presidency.

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Derek Charles Catsam - 6/9/2004

This is a pretty solid analysis, actually, even if you feel you are giving it the old grad school fence sitting. I would guess that TR, Clinton, Eisenhower, Wilson will all battle it out with Reagan for status in the 20th century behind FDR. Two termers (well, TR is complex, but we'll qualify him) with q good deal of popular support and many flaws. This is an especially bad time to be assessing reagan -- even the most hard-hearted liberals among us have been touched and maybe softened up a bit on the Reagan issue. Give it a year.