Reagan’s Place in History? Middling, Scholars Say
Six months after Ronald Reagan left the White House, historians and political scientists--asked to guess how history will rate his presidency--rank him in the middle, between great and dreadful.
Calvin Coolidge’s name keeps coming up in comparison.
“Coolidge was strong for keeping things from being done,” said Lewis Gould, a University of Texas historian.
He also said Reagan “has elements of F.D.R. in his ability to communicate.” But he thinks that ultimately Reagan will wind up “in the middle- or lower-middle ranks.”
Frank Freidel, professor emeritus at both Harvard and the University of Washington and a biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, did not draw the F.D.R. analogy. Instead, he compared Reagan to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“Both were total charmers,” Freidel said. “Both clung to the same sort of small-town Middle Western verities. Both were men of principle. Both to a certain extent were hands-off Presidents.”
Eisenhower biographer Fred Greenstein of Princeton University, on the other hand, said Ike never had a scandal like Iran-Contra and never had his weaknesses laid bare in kiss-and-tell books like those that have come out about Reagan.
Political scientist Thomas Cronin of Colorado College said Reagan “will have to be judged as having made a consequence.” He gives the former President top grades for his ceremonial roles “as the national cheerleader, the national chaplain; he was able to rally the American spirit.”
On the other hand, Reagan “was insensitive to women’s rights, civil rights, oblivious to what was going on in his own Administration--the procurement scandal, HUD, Iran-Contra,” Cronin said. “An ethical sleaze characterized his Administration; it seems a reincarnation of the Warren Harding attitude.”
“Great? It’s hard to say whether he’ll be great,” said Henry Graff, a Columbia University historian.
“We’ll see what happens to the economy. He’ll get high marks for having been on watch when the Cold War began to peter out. For all the bravado and macho style, he’ll be remembered as one of the peacemakers.”
Reagan’s place will be determined by events yet to happen, several historians said.
“If Russia doesn’t explode and (Mikhail S.) Gorbachev continues his program of perestroika and glasnost, Ronald Reagan will have a very significant place in history,” Freidel said. Political scientist Charles Dunn of Clemson University added: “Reagan’s reputation historically will fly upon the wings of Gorbachev and (George) Bush.”