Ranking the presidents

Back in December of 1971, I said to a Monitor colleague, "How in the world am I ever going to keep it going week after week?"

I was referring to this column, which managing editor Earl Foell and chief editorial writer Joseph Harsch had asked me to do, on top of my work as a busy political correspondent. I hadn't resisted; it sounded like great fun as well as an immense challenge.

The years have rolled by, and this month I reach the 30-year mark. When I started, one of the Monitor's legends, Roscoe Drummond, dropped by my desk with this advice: "Keep in the paper," he said, counseling that I should keep my column going under all circumstances.

Well, until just the past few years, when I have briefly stopped writing when on vacation, I've done just that - putting together roughly 1,500 columns. I only wish that Roscoe were around today. I'd love to give him a call and say, "Hey, old friend, I followed your advice."

As I sit at my typewriter (yes, I'm still using my old Royal), the events of those many years are flooding through my mind.

The presidents: The period includes Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton.

The smartest: Nixon and Clinton. Nixon, who finished at the top of his Duke University law-school class, was particularly strong in analysis. And he wrote the first draft of many of his important speeches on long, legal-size pages. And Clinton? He continually amazes those around him by his ability to comprehend, at lightning speed, the most complex subjects, and then intelligently expound on what he has learned.

The most likable: Since "likability" became an issue in the current presidential campaign, it is relevant to focus on that quality.

Although Reagan had his ups and downs in polls measuring his performance, he was always liked by the public, even by those who had a low regard for him as a president.

Ford was generally liked. And so were Carter and Bush. Clinton continually surprises the millions of Americans who are hostile to him by scoring high in popularity. Only Nixon ended up with most of the populace holding strong feelings against him as a person.

I'd say that Jerry Ford, who kept his friends among the Democrats even when he differed with them, was the "most likable" of those presidents. Even his critics in the press liked him.

The best. Ronald Reagan, in my opinion, will be regarded by history as the best of that group. Already some historians who at first ranked Reagan as an "average" president are upgrading him. Indeed, some historians now are calling him a "transcendent" president, giving him credit for being a decisive force in ending the cold war.

I saw a lot of Reagan through the years, starting with a number of interviews with him when he was running for California governor and then when he held office in Sacramento. And he gave his first interview to me (along with James Reston of The New York Times) when he became president. This was followed by further interviews and four Reagan breakfasts with the Monitor group.

So Reagan treated me well. He was always so friendly. And he told those interesting stories. However, is he indeed a "transcendent" president? I didn't see it when I was up close to him. He then was, to me, a congenial but average chief executive.

But I must say that on reflection and on reexamining Reagan's record, I'm coming to a much higher regard for him as a president.

His chief of staff, Howard Baker, says of him: "He knew who he was. He knew what he believed. He knew what he wanted to get done. And he got it done." I am coming to believe that this is true.

Credit lines. History will say some good things about those other presidents. Jimmy Carter set a fine moral example for our children. Jerry Ford brought back credibility to a White House blackened by Watergate. George Bush provided a remarkable performance as a leader during the Gulf War.

And even the widely discredited Richard Nixon will be remembered for his achievements in foreign affairs: opening up mainland China and negotiating detente with the Soviet Union.

Bill Clinton? He will be remembered as the man who was president when the country was enjoying its most prosperous period. And he is a president well loved by minorities: Some black leaders call Clinton their "first president."

But liberal-minded historians see him as an average president. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said this in a recent interview: "He's reminiscent of Kennedy in his high, swift intelligence, his impressive technical command of all the issues. But he's not a fighter. He lacks self-discipline. He is sometimes too clever by half, and he dislikes making enemies. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, 'Judge me by the enemies I have.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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