Reagan Among the Professors - His Surprising Reputation.
Likewise asked about his own presidency, Ronald Reagan, ever the optimist, replied: "I have no fears of that. . . . Whatever else history may say about me when I am gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence, rather than your doubts."
Yet of course -- as Nixon understood -- "history" is largely determined by those who write it. Put simply, bias matters. I have in mind here not journalists or popular biographers like the lately infamous Edmund Morris; their prejudices and peculiarities have been examined elsewhere, many times, and in considerable detail. Rather, my focus is on a different set of writers who are, in the long run, even more important to the historical reputation of any president -- those in the academy, and in particular professors of history and political science. It is their verdict, and especially their emerging verdict on Ronald Reagan, that I wish to discuss.
There is no argument about the political biases of these people. Stanford's department of history, for example, has 22 Democrats but just two Republicans. Dartmouth's has 10 Democrats and zero Republicans. Incredibly, Cornell's has 29 Democrats and not a single Republican. Particularly impressive, and reflecting the sort of political diversity seen in Castro's Cuba and the ayatollah's theocracy, the University of Colorado, Boulder registers stupefying single-party numbers: In the departments of history, English, and philosophy, there are 68 Democrats but no Republicans. Of the 190 professors surveyed in the university's social sciences and humanities department, 184 are Democrats and six are Republicans. A nationwide poll from the early 1990s found 88 percent of "public affairs" faculty identifying themselves as liberal, with 12 percent claiming to be "middle of the road" and, remarkably, 0 percent opting for the conservative label.
Given such facts, conservatives in particular are right to fear that political bias will come to determine how the history of the Reagan years is written. It is therefore all the more surprising -- it is indeed stunning -- to see that Ronald Reagan, contrary to such entirely rational fears, is actually faring quite well among academics in the "learned journals," and in certain major academic books.
But first, the bad news
TO BE SURE, not all the news is good. Recall, for example, that Reagan left office with a public-approval rating well over 60 percent. His only postwar competitor was President Eisenhower. Reagan carried 44 states in 1980 and 49 in 1984. Nothing like this popular verdict has translated, even now, into the personal verdict of most academics. That Reagan continues to be viewed unfavorably in surveys among historians and political scientists is easily shown. A 1994 poll among 481 historians, for instance, ranked him twenty-eighth out of 37 presidents in "greatness," placed in the "below average" group between Zachary Taylor and John Tyler. Aside from Nixon, these historians judged Reagan the worst president in six decades.
Reagan did slightly better in a highly influential poll conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., published in the prestigious Political Science Quarterly in summer 1997, where he registered at the bottom end of the "average" category. The Schlesinger survey included 30 academic luminaries, plus two liberal politicians -- Mario Cuomo and Paul Simon. Even so, Reagan actually received seven "near great" votes, far more than any other in the "average" category. This would have been enough to place him in the "high average" category, but he was sunk by 13 "below average" and four "failure" votes. He came in one spot below his one-term successor George Bush, two below Rutherford Hayes, four below Martin Van Buren, five below Bill Clinton, 11 below lbj, and 13 beneath JFK. Both LBJ and JFK, by way of comparison, were deemed "high average" presidents. At least Reagan managed to beat out Jimmy Carter (albeit by .05 points). Not much of a showing.
Meanwhile, Reagan personally continues to get shabby treatment in undergraduate political science and history texts. This bias enters my own office numerous times each semester in the form of unsolicited just-off-the-press offerings. I personally put each such text through what I call "the Reagan Test": I go to the index of each, look up "Reagan," and read the pages. This is an effective method for rooting out biases.
Repeated trials of the Reagan Test illuminate the two main ways in which these texts dispose of his presidency: Either Reagan's accomplishments are downplayed (and he is at times personally vilified); or he is outright ignored. I always expect the first recourse -- of which there are plenty of examples. But the second is surprising. It is especially salient among texts chronicling the end of the Cold War or 1980s foreign affairs. Typically, the author canonizes Gorbachev while slighting Reagan, as if he weren't even president. In such cases, there are scores of pages on Gorbachev, with merely a handful on his American contemporary.
To cite just one example, consider a 1997 text for undergraduates by Michael G. Roskin of Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. The Rebirth of Eastern Europe concerns the region's history, struggle under communism, 1980s tumult, and post-Cold War transition. Its subthemes are the Solidarity movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Charter 77. One would think it impossible not to underscore Reagan's role here, but no: The index lists one reference to the president in the entire book. This single citation declares "Reagan decided Gorbachev could be trusted," therefore ceasing his "harsh rhetoric about the ‘evil empire.'" "Gorbachev," Roskin writes, "was calling off the Cold War." As in most undergraduate texts, Gorbachev is given the credit. The text has a full chapter called, "1989: The Gorbachev Factor," piled on top of multiple added references to the man -- that is to say, Gorbachev -- who apparently bestrode our times as a world-historical Colossus. Reagan be damned.
The Roskin book is published by the respected house Prentice-Hall. It is attractively put together, brief in length, and inexpensive. It is destined to sell. As an indication of just how misshapen the textbook accounts often are, consider this: I, myself, used the Roskin book as supplemental reading for a course. I figured that a book on 1980s Eastern Europe that ignored the American president was better than one that twisted him out of all recognition.
Why the good news matters more
NEVERTHELESS, in more important academic areas, the treatment of Reagan has been far better than most people would imagine in light of established biases. For whereas the survey data and undergraduate texts are disheartening, individual journal articles by leading academics -- including, of course, liberal academics -- have been surprisingly fair and increasingly positive, as have a handful of highly influential books by the very best presidential scholars and historians.
Let us consider the journal articles first. This trend is all the more significant because these articles carry far more weight than surveys or textbooks. Surveys are ephemeral, and no serious scholar cites undergraduate textbooks in his research. But professors diligently read the journals, commit articles to memory, discuss them at conferences, and cite them in graduate seminars. This cycle continues for graduate students who go on to teach. Thus the journal articles, unlike surveys or textbooks, endure.
One significant place where Reagan's legacy is being given a fair shake is Presidential Studies Quarterly, the leading academic journal on the presidency. It is a non-partisan, "interdisciplinary" journal, meaning that it publishes articles on the presidency from political scientists, historians, experts in rhetoric and communications, and social scientists of all stripes. In other words, it is exactly the sort of place where one would expect political bias to color scholarship on Reagan's presidency -- and one would be wrong.
For instance, Andrew E. Busch of the University of Denver wrote a summer 1997 piece for Presidential Studies Quarterly significantly titled "Ronald Reagan and the Defeat of the Soviet Empire." Its thesis, as it appears in the opening paragraph: "Far from being accidental or, conversely, inevitable, this foreign policy triumph [the end of the Cold War] arguably resulted from a coherent strategic vision forged and implemented by American policy makers against much opposition and great odds; a triumph of the West, and a triumph for the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan." In the course of this article, Busch also argues that: 1) most of "the claims and predictions of Reagan's critics throughout the 1980s . . . were flatly wrong"; 2) "only a handful of American [presidential] administrations could plausibly claim to have achieved or left in their wake foreign policy successes that match these [Reagan's]"; 3) "If Gorbachev allowed peace, Reagan led to Gorbachev by fundamentally changing the international situation that the Soviet leadership faced"; and 4) "In the final analysis, if Communism's fall required translators, Ronald Reagan was the Great Translator."
In that same issue, Douglas J. Hoekstra, a professor at James Madison College, and a well-known presidential scholar, published a serious, non-partisan, non-negative account of Reagan's "belief system" and decision making. Ditto for an article on Reagan's belief system by Charles A. Hantz in the fall 1996 issue of the same quarterly. Ditto, again, for an insightful piece on Reagan's political skills and leadership in the summer 1996 edition by John W. Sloan, professor of political science at the University of Houston. While these three pieces are hardly pro-Reagan polemics, they are fair and not hostile. Perhaps even more surprising, Dinesh D'Souza's glowing book on Reagan was reviewed equally glowingly in the spring 1998 issue of the quarterly, with reviewer Robert Previdi going so far as to opine that "This book is good for the soul because it does justice to a great president who succeeded because he represented the essence of America" and that "Reagan's opponents have taken their shots; it is time to consider the other side." Previdi, incidentally, is a member of the highly mainstream National Advisory Council of the Center for the Study of the Presidency.
A similar spirit appears to be loose in other academic journals. As early as 1989, for example, the Journal of American Studies published a complimentary piece on Reagan by the respected academic David Mervin titled "Ronald Reagan's Place in History." Similarly, the May/June issue of Public Administration Review included an eye-opening account by Shirley Anne Warshaw of Gettysburg College of the domestic policy making process in the Reagan White House, a piece detailing how ideological consistency was shrewdly ensured throughout Reagan's administration.
Now consider the highly significant case of Political Science Quarterly (psq), which generally speaking vies with the American Political Science Review for the title of best all-around political science journal. psq is the oldest journal in the field, dating back to 1886, and has published such classics as Woodrow Wilson's 1887 "The Study of administration" (credited with spawning an entire subfield of political science -- public administration). The names on psq's editorial board read like a who's who of the best in political science, including Robert Jervis, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Everett Carll Ladd Jr., Robert Art, Theodore Lowi, Richard M. Pious, Nelson Polsby, Robert Shapiro, and so on. It is also important to note that psq seems to have one of the more rigorous review processes among journals, meaning that anything appearing in its pages has been vetted thoroughly by layers of academics.
From 1991 to 1998, psq published four major articles relating to Reagan. One of these, a 1997 examination by James M. Scott titled "Interbranch Rivalry and the Reagan Doctrine in Nicaragua," examines the policy-making process and relationship between the executive and legislative branches during the attempt to arm the contras in the 1980s. This piece is non-ideological and bears little on the question of Reagan's legacy.
The other three pieces are a different matter, and offer interesting evidence both of the growing tendency to treat Reagan positively and of the lingering academic animus toward him. Begin with Bruce Jentleson's "The Reagan Administration and Coercive Diplomacy" in the spring 1991 issue. Jentleson is an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Davis. His piece begins with a nuanced understanding of what drove the administration's foreign policy:
One of the highest priorities Ronald Reagan and his foreign policy team had when they came to office in 1981 was to break the United States out of what they considered its "Vietnam trauma" aversion to the use of military force as an instrument in foreign policy. It wasn't so much that the Reagan administration wanted to engage in new wars as that it believed in the utility of limited military force as an integral part of a coercive diplomacy strategy for bringing political pressure to bear on America's adversaries.
To appreciate just how judicious this is, recall that the author is speaking to a substantial segment of readers who actually believed throughout the 1980s that Reagan was a warmonger, possibly a deluded one, with no strategic plan whatsoever.
Jentleson goes on to argue, first, that the Reagan administration was successful in forcing Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, containing Iran in the Persian Gulf, and limiting Qaddafi's sponsorship of terrorism; and, less charitably, that the administration was not successful in bringing the mujahideen to power in Afghanistan, the contras to power in Nicaragua (he attributes this failure to factors unrelated to Reagan), ending the civil war in Lebanon, or removing Qaddafi from power. He observes that in the matter of Afghanistan, "the Reagan administration had a genuine claim to a substantial share of the credit for the restraint/reversal in Soviet policy."
Let's be clear about what's happening here: A serious academic, in one of the top two political science journals in America, is giving a large share of credit to the Reagan administration for ending the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Unexpected, yes, but decidedly the case.
Even more impressive is a significant piece by political scientist Beth A. Fischer of the University of Toronto published in the fall 1997 issue of psq. Fischer's article is about Reagan, the Soviets, and the end of the Cold War. Her aim is to determine which side's leader was most responsible for the subsequent thawing of U.S.-Soviet relations that took hold by 1989. More specifically, she wants to determine the source (person, time, and place) of the start of the thaw.
In this choice between Reagan and Gorbachev, Fischer chooses Reagan -- unequivocally. In particular, she chooses his January 16, 1984 address from the White House. This event, she notes, took place 15 months before the start of Gorbachev's premiership. She documents that it was Reagan who first softened the Cold War rhetoric, urged peaceful relations, and extended an olive branch. Fischer's thesis is proven via numerous quotes and statements as well as a "content analysis" that measures the percentage of lines in Reagan's address dedicated to notions like U.S.-Soviet "common interests," "need for cooperation," "need for dialogue," and so on. Conservatives may want to brace themselves for her conclusions. She writes:
In January 1984, fifteen months before Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the ussr, the Reagan administration dramatically shifted course and began seeking a rapprochement with Moscow. . . . This new conciliatory policy led directly to the Geneva Summit meeting in November 1985 . . . . This argument . . . directly contradicts prevailing views regarding the end of the cold war. Conventional wisdom holds that the Reagan administration became more conciliatory only in response to changes within the Soviet Union. . . . [But] the Reagan administration did not simply play a passive, reactive role; it took the first steps toward defusing superpower hostilities even before Moscow showed signs of change. Mikhail Gorbachev took the ball and ran with it, but it was Ronald Reagan who had put the ball in play.
Of course one can quibble with this interpretation. But what's relevant for our purposes is that Fischer's piece credits Reagan rather than Gorbachev for beginning the end of the Cold War -- and that such a piece was published in so celebrated a journal.
Of course, not all is complimentary for Reagan in the pages of psq. A fall 1991 article by the respected scholar Richard M. Pious of Barnard College is unflattering and condescending toward Reagan's intelligence. This is largely because the piece is a review essay of some of the nastier journalistic "biographical/historical" books on Reagan, like Haynes Johnson's Sleepwalking Through History and Lou Cannon's Role of a Lifetime. Usually, academics are disrespectful of works by journalists who are not actual historians or political scientists. But Pious seems to like these two works. This essay contains the sort of snide characterizations that conservatives pessimistically expect to see in academe, in particular the hammering of Reagan for his supposed "lack of intellect." Still and all, the scorecard for psq in the 1990s on the question of that president's legacy would appear to be one neutral vote, one negative, and two positive.
Just as significant, from an institutional point of view, is the matter of how these articles make it into academic journals. Each undergoes a rigorous review process. Once receiving a submission, the editor or managing editor -- who is usually, as mentioned, of liberal political views -- decides if the article should be rejected on the spot and sent back immediately or if it should proceed to step two, which means it is sent to reviewers. If the article reaches step two, it is circulated to at least two or three reviewers/"referees" in the field. These reviewers are academics at leading colleges, and nearly always of liberal bent. They are the gatekeepers who decide what goes in the journal and becomes, unfairly or not, a part of "history."
Keeping this process in mind, the number of studies praising Reagan that have made it into print is even more remarkable. One more example is a piece of my own in the spring 1998 Presidential Studies Quarterly, "Comparing Presidents Reagan and Eisenhower." The thesis of this 27- page essay was that academics and the media have unfairly underestimated and castigated the two leaders. I argued Reagan should be credited with undermining communism and winning the Cold War, and that key policies affecting that monumental achievement were conceived by the president himself. None of this, tellingly, caused any reviewer to cry halt.
How Reagan is faring in books
FAVORABLE ASSESSMENTS of Reagan have also made their way into serious books by the very top presidential scholars, like Yale's Stephen Skowronek and Harvard's famous Richard Neustadt, perhaps the preeminent figure in that world. Both men's works have inspired entire books and doctoral dissertations by other scholars, and entire symposia at academic conferences have been dedicated to their writings. In fact, the most recent Presidential Studies Quarterly -- the first under a new editorship -- devotes a hefty portion to a discussion of Skowronek's ideas. When such scholars speak of a presidency, almost certainly what they say will make it into the drafts of history.
So what do they make of Reagan? In his classic book, The Politics Presidents Make -- which won towering praise and numerous academic awards, including the cherished "Neustadt Prize" -- Skowronek categorizes different presidents. Among his most favorable categories is that of his so-called "reconstructive leaders." This is an esteemed camp filled by a select few: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, fdr, and . . . Ronald Reagan, whom Skowronek calls, among other things, "the most masterful politician in the presidency since Franklin Roosevelt."
Then there is Neustadt. He is certainly no right-winger. But whereas liberal historians like William Leuchtenberg are incensed by any comparison between Reagan and their own beloved fdr, the estimable Neustadt has no such problem. He writes in his classic Presidential Power:
Reagan's links to Roosevelt were important for his Presidency in several ways, all interrelated. For one, Reagan's image of the office: fdr in 1933 had changed the country's consciousness of what its government should be and do. Reagan aspired to no less, if in the opposite direction. For another, take his popular appeal. The personality that in the first years of his second term had the highest Gallup Poll approval ratings ever recorded for such a time quite obviously contained as an ingredient the warmth, the human touch, the humor that in Roosevelt's day had become hallmarks of Democrats.
Americans of every class who moved toward the Republicans in 1980 or after could identify with Reagan: He had made that move himself. But more than this, he obviously was liked, he personally was liked, by people of the same sort as had once loved fdr -- this at the same time that the Reagan stances in domestic and defense spheres drew to him the heirs of Roosevelt haters.
Neustadt goes on to write that Reagan's presidency achieved something that none of his seven predecessors could -- it restored the public image of the office to a "fair (if perhaps rickety) approximation of its Rooseveltian mold: a place of popularity, influence, and initiative, a source of programmatic and symbolic leadership, both pacesetter and tonesetter, the nation's voice to both the world and us, and -- like or hate the policies -- a presence many of us loved to see as Chief of State."
In addition to such prestigious scholars, there is also the prestigious academic press. Perhaps the leading academic publisher of books on the presidency is the University Press of Kansas. It has just released a book called The Reagan Effect: Economics and Presidential Leadership, by John W. Sloan, the aforementioned political science professor from the University of Houston.
Sloan credits Reagan for "creating a policy regime that was capable of promoting long-term economic growth with low inflation." He says the malaise and stagflation of the 1970s were replaced in the 1980s with "an adaptive economy that generated millions of new jobs and discredited the thesis that the United States was a declining superpower." Sloan provides the first academic account I've seen that argues that the economic boom of the 1990s started with Reagan. He says outright that "Reagan's tax cuts for both individuals and corporations stimulated the prosperity that, except for a short, mild recession in 1990-91, has continued into the 1990s." Sloan also says that Reagan's economic policy, along with help from the Fed in curbing inflation, found a way to "prolong the growth phase of the business cycle." And while the book is primarily about economics, Sloan does praise Reagan's foreign policy role, notably in finishing the ussr, and, by extension, his general intelligence. He says, "Reagan was never the warmonger that liberals feared he was; indeed he was far more committed to peace and ending the threat of nuclear war than liberals could have imagined."
What makes all of this truly worth noting is that Sloan is clearly not a man of the right. He started his book with an apparent preconceived notion that Reagan's economic policies were doomed to fail. "I began this project with the working title The Reagan Presidency: Political Success and Economic Decline," he writes in the book's preface. "After revising my outline six times, I came up with the present title. . . . The change in title reflects the growing evidence that the Reagan presidency achieved both political and economic success."
Because Sloan's book is published by the redoubtable University Press of Kansas, it will no doubt be reviewed by all the major academic journals. Already, three respected academic reviewers have weighed in. Among these, Chester J. Pach Jr., author of The Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, calls it "a meticulous, balanced, and revealing book about a controversial subject." James Pfiffner, a leading presidential scholar who has long served on the editorial board of Presidential Studies Quarterly, calls Sloan's book "an important contribution to political debate in the United States."
Nor is Sloan's the only example of a historical volume that labors to give Reagan credit. Though critical of Reagan in other areas, Boston University's Robert Dallek, the prominent liberal historian and expert on lbj, lauds the president for his broad perspective on the nation's problems and future. He says Reagan was "brilliant at creating a kind of rapport with the country -- appealing to its better angels, appealing to the native optimism that is so much a part of our culture and tradition." Just released is a 1999 edition of Dallek's 1984 book, Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism. As does Sloan, Dallek says "Reagan's policies deserve significant credit" for "the buoyant American economy of the 1980s and 1990s." He also salutes "Reagan's contribution to the successful end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, a principal Reagan goal." While asserting that Reagan was not "the principal architect of Soviet defeat," he believes that Reagan "gave the final shove." He also praises the president's political and communication skills, the latter of which "did more to restore a measure of confidence in the institution of the presidency than anything since the Kennedy administration."
As in the academic journals, the account of Reagan now being hammered out in scholarly books will dramatically shape his legacy -- and much of that hammering, at least so far, is to the good. More and more, academics appear to agree that -- in the words of Samuel Kernell, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has written a book on presidential leadership called Going Public - - Reagan's presidential performance "cast a long shadow, not unlike that of Franklin Roosevelt's, against which the performance of present and future presidents will be judged."
The blessing of Gaddis
PERHAPS MOST AMAZING of all, Reagan is now being granted substantial credit for the Cold War's end by no less an authority than John Lewis Gaddis.
Gaddis, recently at Oxford and now at Yale, is undoubtedly the leading historian of the Cold War. His works are required reading in college courses. In 1992 he produced another book destined to be a classic, The United States and the End of the Cold War. In the chapter titled "The Unexpected Ronald Reagan," Gaddis maintains that the president succeeded in "bringing about the most significant improvement in Soviet-American relations since the end of World War II." While Gaddis attributes much of the credit to Gorbachev's receptivity -- often receptivity to Reagan's initiatives -- he also asserts "it would be a mistake to credit him solely with the responsibility for what happened: Ronald Reagan deserves a great deal of the credit as well." And how exactly did Reagan exert a "decisive impact upon the course of events"? Gaddis cites the zero-zero option on intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, real reductions in warheads under start, and intangibles like Reagan's toughness in negotiations and willingness to consider alternatives.
Gaddis especially cites sdi, which he rightly calls "Reagan's most distinctive personal policy innovation." This description also speaks well of Reagan's personal role in the Cold War's end. In a footnote, Gaddis suggests that sdi was a contributing factor "to the rise of Gorbachev" -- a potentially monumental assertion.
And Gaddis truly gets to the core of Reagan's successful dealing with the Soviets: He notes that the president was able, when necessary, to soften the hard line in favor of a mixed "militancy [and] a surprising degree of operational pragmatism." Gaddis realizes that Reagan both preached and practiced his strategy of "negotiation from strength." This explains, he shows, how and why Reagan would approve both covert and open military actions while simultaneously offering far-reaching accommodations to the Moscow leadership. After several years of this, in Gaddis's analysis, the Cold War ended -- an outcome which, as he suggests in the book's preface, was unthinkable in the mid-1980s.
This conclusion has sent some Gaddis admirers into apoplexy. This includes noted liberal author Abraham Brumberg, who reviewed the book for the Washington Post in 1992. He seemed almost depressed that Gaddis would extend such "charity" to a man with such a "breath-takingly simple-minded view of the world" -- a man who actually believed in "Edward Teller's disastrous crusade for Star Wars," that the ussr was an "empire of evil" (as Brumberg quotes Reagan), that the Kremlin wanted world revolution and a "one-world Socialist or Communist state," that there was a "communist menace," and that "trees are responsible for pollution."
Speaking of the evil empire, Gaddis also wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1994: "Now that they are free to speak -- and act -- the people of the former Soviet Union appear to have associated themselves more closely with President Reagan's famous indictment of that state as an ‘evil empire' than with more balanced academic assessments." This comes from his well known and aptly titled "The Tragedy of Cold War History."
Actually, Gaddis had begun his move in this direction as early as 1988. He published a January 1989 piece called "Hanging Tough Paid Off" in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He said the Reagan administration correctly assessed the potential for Soviet concessions, which it happily got -- thanks equally to Gorbachev. He credits Reagan with having done four things that led to Soviet cuts: 1) "rebuilding self-confidence"; 2) "spooking the Soviets"; 3) negotiating from strength; and 4) responding to Gorbachev. Gaddis asserted:
The time has come to acknowledge an astonishing development: during his eight years as president, Ronald Reagan has presided over the most dramatic improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations -- and the most solid progress in arms control -- since the Cold War began.
Gaddis further urged his colleagues to put aside "preconceptions" in evaluating the Reagan record with the Soviet Union. Only a few weeks following Reagan's exit from office, Gaddis pleaded that "it would be uncharitable -- and historically irresponsible -- to begrudge the strategic vision of an administration once thought by many of us to have had none at all."
"The power of fixed objectives"
OTHER MAJOR HISTORIANS and scholars also offer isolated nuggets of praise for Reagan's execution of his office. David McCullough laments that "Reagan was so often underestimated. . . . As no president since fdr, he demonstrated the power of fixed objectives in combination with extraordinary charm."
Commenting on Reagan's unimpressive showing in Arthur Schlesinger's poll, Alonzo L. Hamby, the Ohio University historian and author of A Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman, assures us: "When passions cool after a generation or so, Ronald Reagan will be widely accepted by historians as a near-great chief executive." Hamby believes the president "revived a sick economy," "established a policy course that won the Cold War," and "uplifted a depressed national spirit with his rhetoric."
Indeed, even Schlesinger says some good things about Reagan: "Reagan is the triumph of a man who earnestly believed in something. . . . [I]t was his time. I don't think it was a triumph of packaging; it was a triumph of commitment. . . . I think Reagan is proof of the power of conviction politics." (Don't expect much more than that from Schlesinger.)
In the delicate matter of Edmund Morris, who has (or at least, had) credibility with historians, it seems enough to note that he has gone on record saying that Reagan was a "great man and great president." In what is perhaps the most significant comment on Morris's Dutch, it did manage to suggest to at least one serious reader -- namely, Jefferson biographer Joseph P. Ellis, who reviewed the book for the Washington Post-- that the time is "ripe for a detached reappraisal of Reagan's place in the presidential pantheon." Ellis is no conservative, and writes that he found it personally impossible to vote for Reagan in the 1980s. Nonetheless, he is willing to call for a reappraisal.
In sum, and as we have seen at some length, Reagan's treatment by academics is far better than many people -- especially many conservatives -- might surmise it to be. Contrary to expectation, many articles in the top journals have been fair, as have a number of influential books. These works, including even some flattering assessments of Reagan, have come from respected historians, presidential scholars, and political scientists -- people who were not Reagan supporters and are certainly not right-wingers.
Part of the reason for this turn, it seems obvious, is that certain of Reagan's gifts are rising in stature with the passage of time. There is now near-consensus, for example, on the notion that Reagan was a great communicator with admirable political skills, whereas once he was derided as a mere actor. And, of course, there are also certain incontrovertible facts about the Reagan era. During his time in office, he passed major domestic initiatives, saw American prestige restored at home and abroad, watched an economy soar, and saw the Cold War enter its final days. As time passes, the idea that he did all this through "dumb luck" -- an explanation with plenty of currency during his time in office -- seems increasingly absurd. There is also, fortunately, a certain professional factor at work: Honesty and academic integrity seem to be forcing at least some people to rethink their views.
Whatever factor or combination of them works best, they leave us one irony the man himself would have appreciated. Castro, who so perfectly embodied all Reagan stood against, used to say that history would absolve him. Reagan won't have to worry about that. Historians are doing it for him.