Where Reagan Ranks in a New Poll by Conservative Historians

Roundup: Talking About History

James Taranto, in the WSJ (June 10, 2004):

Ronald Reagan has had a hard time getting his due from scholars. In 1996 Arthur Schlesinger Jr. conducted a poll of historians asking them to rank the presidents, and Mr. Reagan came in 25th out of 39, putting him in the "low average" category. The Gipper had done only slightly better in a Siena College survey two years earlier, finishing 20th out of 41--below Bill Clinton (16th), who had been in office less than two years, and well below Lyndon B. Johnson (13th). It's hard to agree that the president who won the Cold War was less successful than the one who escalated the Vietnam War.

The flaw in these studies is obvious. Because academics tend to be far to the left of the general population, conservative presidents, especially recent ones, usually get short shrift. (A C-Span survey in 1999, which included "professional presidential experts" as well as historians, did rank Mr. Reagan 11th.)

Public opinion polls tell a different story. In February 2001 Gallup asked Americans who was the greatest president in history. Mr. Reagan finished first, with 18%....

In 2000 the Federalist Society came up with a way to remedy the flaws in both types of surveys. It asked 78 scholars in history, law and politics to rate the presidents on a five-point scale. "We tried to choose approximately equal numbers of scholars who lean to the left and to the right," explains Northwestern University's James Lindgren, who analyzed the data. "Another way to express this is that we sought to mirror what scholarly opinion might be on the counterfactual assumption that the academy was politically representative of the society in which we live and work."

Mr. Lindgren averaged the ratings for each of the 39 presidents (George W. Bush was not yet elected, and William Henry Harrison and James Garfield were omitted because they died shortly after taking office) and divided them into six categories: great, near great, above average, average, below average and failure. The results appeared in November 2000 on OpinionJournal.com and have just been published as a Wall Street Journal book, "Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House," which also includes an essay on each president and several thematic chapters on presidential leadership. (For excerpts, click here.) Some highlights:

• Three presidents made the cut as "great": George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They are the top three finishers in most surveys of scholars.

• Eight presidents were judged "near great," including Mr. Reagan, who finished eighth. Among them only James K. Polk (10th) served just one term.

• Among recent presidents, only Mr. Reagan ranked as "near great." JFK (18th) and LBJ (17th) were "above average," George H.W. Bush (21st) and Bill Clinton (24th) "average," and Richard Nixon (33rd), Gerald Ford (28th) and Jimmy Carter (30th) "below average."

• Mr. Clinton was the most controversial president--that is, the scholars' rankings of him diverged more sharply than for anyone else. Woodrow Wilson, who finished 11th overall, was the second most controversial president, but the next three were all among the post-1960 group: Mr. Reagan, Nixon and LBJ.

• Four presidents rated as failures: Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding and James Buchanan. Buchanan finished dead last.

The new survey can be found in James Taranto, co-editor, with Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, of residential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House.

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andy mahan - 9/18/2006

Refreshing. An honest attempt to reveal some truth. More effort should be made to ensure that samples are unbiased.

Still, I'm not much of a poll fan. The general public has no need of them. My preference is that polls reflect public opinon not influence it.