Friday, November 07, 2003

Reagan boosting:

In an essay (somewhere on the web, but we can't find it at the moment See UPDATE below), it was pointed out that the move to bolster Reagan's standing in the public eye was a reaction to a ranking of presidents that took place in the mid 1990's. Reagan was ranked (low) average, and apparently this got Grover Norquist excited and subsequently he began his crusade to venerate Reagan, which included naming roads, airports, and other sites after the former president.

So, what about that survey? It was conducted in 1996, authored by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and published late in that year in the New York Times Magazine. In the September 29, 1997 edition of the Weekly Standard (by James Piereson of the John M. Olin Foundation), that survey was discussed and compared with another survey conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). The ISI is described by the Standard as "an educational organization that promotes traditional approaches to the liberal arts and American history and government." We've looked at the members of the ISI panel that ranked presidents and it tilts right. Some of the members came from: the Hoover Institution; National Review; Claremont Institute; and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

In any event, we dug up our old copy of the Weekly Standard (we no longer subscribe, by the way), found the story and the survey results. Here they are:
Rank Schlesinger Survey Intercollegiate Studies Institute Survey
Great Washington, Lincoln, F.D.Roosevelt Washington, Lincoln
Near Great Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, T.Roosevelt, Wilson, Truman Jefferson, Jackson, Reagan, T.Roosevelt, F.D.Roosevelt, Eisenhower
High Average Monroe, Cleveland, McKinley, Eisenhower, Kennedy, L.B.Johnson, J.Adams J.Adams, J.Q.Adams, Cleveland, McKinley, Taft, Coolidge, Truman, Polk, Monroe
Low Average Madison, J.Q.Adams, Van Buren, Hayes, Arthur, B.Harrison, Taft, Ford, Carter, Reagan, BushSr., Clinton Madison, Van Buren, Ford, B.Harrison, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, BushSr.
Below Average Tyler, Taylor*, Fillmore, Coolidge Tyler, Fillmore, Wilson, Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover
Failure Pierce, Buchanan, A.Johnson, Grant, Harding, Hoover, Nixon Buchanan, Grant, Harding, L.B.Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Pierce, A.Johnson
  * as reported in the Weekly Standard, but in the body of the story Taylor (and Henry Harrison) is listed as being excluded from both surveys. We suspect the name should be Garfield (which is not listed in this column). Raised more than one rank indicated by blue
Lowered more than one rank indicated by red (note: Wilson and L.B.Johnson lowered 3 ranks in ISI survey)
UPDATE: The backstory on the Reagan legacy movement, including the response to the Schlesinger survey, was reported by digby here. That post contains excerpts from a Mother Jones article on the Reagan Legacy Project. (But you only have to read digby - who is one of our favorite webloggers.)

BIG UPDATE: A reader (Matthew) asked if we could post the original Weekly Standard article to see what standards were used to rank the presidents. Alas, it's not online (as far as we can tell) and it's too long to type in. Also, the article hardly discussed criteria. But we can present a paragraph-by-paragraph summary below:
  • Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s ranking is something his father started 50 years ago.
  • For Schlesinger's poll, a jury of 32 (nearly all) liberal historians were used.
  • No surprise that the study fell along predictable ideological lines (e.g. FDR "great")
  • "Rather than a reliable ranking of presidents, the study was in fact just one more elaboration of the central assumptions of modern liberalism - namely that progress can only be achieved through an interventionist federal government that sponsors programs to redistribute income and promote equality."
  • Now a new study has appeared that offers a different perspective. Done by the ISI. (Names are mentioned, but no criteria.)
  • As in Schlesinger study, panelists ranked "great" to "failure".
  • Comparing the two polls finds areas of agreement. Washington & Lincoln were "great".
  • "The consensus extends from the founding of the Republic down to the First World War."
  • But it breaks down starting with Wilson. "The debate over the modern presidents mirrors the national argument over the role of the federal government in our society ..."
  • This explains some of the differences. ISI demotes FDR from "great" to "near great", Wilson & Truman down one notch, Kennedy down two notches, LBJ down to "failure".
  • "... despite their reservations about FDR the ISI panelists acknowledge his lasting influence and historical importance."
  • In 28 years from '33 to '61, FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower served at least two terms, led the nation through the depression, WW2, and the early Cold War, and continue to be admired by historians.
  • Discusses the terms of post '61 presidents (assassinated, driven from office, defeated for reelection).
  • "In the judgment of the ISI historians, Ronald Reagan was the only genuinely successful president in this entire period." Recreated his party and reinvigorated the office.
  • "What of Clinton?" He has discussed his own place in history.
  • "While Clinton could take some comfort from Schesinger's speculation, which mirrored his own self-assessment, the ISI panel came to a different conclusion. Twenty panelists rated Clinton "below average" and 10 judged him a "failure". The panel's pessimism about the Clinton presidency derives from the avalanche of scandals that has buried his presidency, any one of which might eventually discredit him, as well as his failure so far to take the difficult steps required to keep our old-age entitlement programs solvent."
    [Emphasis added. Also, if the vote was 20 "below average" and 10 "failure", how come Clinton is rated a "failure"?]
  • "But Clinton can claim some accomplishments." A generally prosperous economy.
  • Clinton is essentially a status-quo president.
  • "Clinton's main task have had less to do with the presidency than with saving his party and its favored programs from destruction at the hands of the Republicans." "If Clinton gets through his term without any debacles, he will in all likelihood be viewed by future historians as an "average" president.


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