Ronald Reagan’s death, like the death of any president, raises the question of how he’ll be judged by history. The current proximity of his life and his presidency make an objective answer to this question difficult, but the great likelihood is that he’ll ultimately be counted among the pantheon of “great” presidents.
There’s no doubt that Reagan is held in high esteem by a majority of Americans. A 2001 poll crowned him the greatest president of all time, just ahead of Abraham Lincoln. However, some of the other rankings in the top ten — Bill Clinton (3), for example, outpolled George Washington (7) — seem unlikely to hold over the long term. So we must turn to other means for judging Reagan’s chances at historical immortality.
A better approach than polling is to compare Reagan with past presidents who are now regarded as great. But who makes this list? Few Americans would object to placing Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt near the top. To those four, most historians would add Harry S. Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Jackson. The question, then, is how Reagan ranks with these men.
Great presidents are skilled party leaders. Lincoln gave the Republican party its place in American politics; Jefferson and Jackson did the same for the Democratic party. In the 1930s, FDR rebuilt his party by forging a coalition that delivered five straight presidential victories.
Reagan also revived his party, in disarray after the scandals of the Nixon administration. He unified Southerners, laborers, entrepreneurs and religious conservatives into a powerful bloc that swept the Republicans to three victories in the 1980s. So successful was the “Reagan coalition” that party leaders have worked desperately — and not entirely successfully — to sustain it since Reagan left office.
Great presidents are also effective communicators. Lincoln was the finest speechmaker in American history. FDR, TR, Wilson and Truman were also dynamic speakers. FDR used radio effectively, and his famous “fireside chats” played a critical role in drumming up support for New Deal legislation.
Reagan, dubbed the “Great Communicator,” was an enormously successful speaker. A master of the sound bite, he used TV appearances both to attract voters and to secure support for his programs. He freely acknowledged his debt to television, remarking, “I’ve often wondered how you could be President, and not be an actor.”
Successful presidents must also have a vision for what the government will accomplish under their leadership. Thomas Jefferson hoped to create opportunity for yeoman farmers. Polk was committed to expansion. Lincoln pledged an end to slavery. TR, FDR, and Truman promised social justice. Woodrow Wilson envisioned eternal peace.
Reagan too had a clear vision for his presidency. On the domestic front, he advocated Reaganomics, which called for a reduction in taxes as a means of stimulating the economy. Although Reaganomics was not a complete success — the national debt soared — 20 million new jobs were created during the Reagan presidency.
Reagan’s vision for his foreign policy centered on the Soviet Union. In 1980, he took a hard line on the Cold War and committed the United States to a military buildup. Over time, however, Reagan’s position softened as the Soviet economy crumbled, and he ultimately promised cooperation with his counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. This led first to a series of summit meetings, then to arms limitation treaties, and ultimately to the end of the Cold War.
It is in Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War, the most enduring crisis of the post-World War II era, that his strongest claim to greatness lies. More than any other factor, what separates the great presidents from the rest is their response to national crises. It’s no coincidence that most presidents on the list of greats — Polk, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman — led the nation to victory in a war.
And those who were not wartime presidents successfully addressed other crises. Washington established a new government. Jefferson defused tensions with France and England. Jackson quelled South Carolina’s attempt to nullify federal law. TR confronted the social ills that had been created by industrialization.
Ronald Reagan thus has much in common with the most respected occupants of the Oval Office. Seemingly the only obstacles to his occupying a seat in the pantheon of presidential greats are the black marks against his record — his disregard for the environment, his failure to take strong action against South African apartheid and his role in the Iran-Contra scandal most prominent among them.
However, most of the other men on the list had serious black marks of their own. Washington, Jefferson, Polk and Jackson were slaveholders. TR played a key role in the subjugation of the Philippines. Wilson segregated the federal government and was arguably the most racist man ever to occupy the White House.
These indiscretions have not proved fatal to historical reputations, however, because on balance the positive accomplishments are judged to outweigh the negatives. It’s foreseeable that Reagan will benefit from the same consideration and that his successes will ultimately be judged more important than his shortcomings.
If Ronald Reagan’s supporters had had their way, the United States would already have the Reagan dime, the Reagan memorial, and Ronald Reagan university. These things may never come to pass, but it’s still safe to say that when the history of the 20th century is written, the 40th president will be accorded a place of honor in it.
Christopher Bates is an adjunct professor of history at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a writer for the History News Service.