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Walter Rodgers

Reagan and Clinton as American idols? Not so fast.

The majority of Americans consider Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as 'outstanding' or 'above average' among the modern presidents. Pollsters and historians need an edict: Wait 50 years before judging the greatness of presidents and their legacies.

By Walter Rodgers / March 12, 2012

Former President Ronald Reagan (l.) with then, president-elect Bill Clinton (r.) during Mr. Clinton's visit to Mr. Reagan's office in Los Angeles on November 27, 1992. Reagan gets too much credit for ending the cold war, writes Walter Rodgers, and Clinton's behavior disqualifies him for the pantheon of presidential 'greats.'

Gary Hershorn/Reuters/file

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The American public tends toward a rush to gush. In February, the Gallup Poll queried the public on how recent presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, will go down in history. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton remain the public’s favorites, with 69 percent judging Mr. Reagan as “outstanding” or “above average,” and 60 percent saying the same about Mr. Clinton.

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Whatever their statistical validity, such polls tend to be fabulously misleading, blurring the line between popularity and presidential accomplishment.
The question inspires nostalgia, rather than an objective view. We excuse ourselves from the onus of judicious thinking, settling for fickle notions about “popularity” or even physical beauty.

Last month, PBS aired a four-hour documentary on Clinton. Much of it was painful to watch, especially the ordeals that he inflicted on the nation over his sexual exploits, lying, impeachment, and quest for public redemption.

The behavior overshadowed his presidency to such an extent that it automatically disqualifies him from a presidential pantheon, despite the robust economy he left, including a whopping budget surplus that his Republican successor frittered away.

But methinks the real thespians of the Clinton tragedy are the American people who manage to overlook his past mendacity and betrayals and still give him a standing ovation when he walks into an NBA basketball game.

There is a particularly telling moment in the PBS documentary, when, with his back to the wall, as it often was, Clinton was said to have shouted at his staff, “Tell me what to do!”

William Hazlitt, the 19th-century English literary critic and essayist, wrote, “No man is truly great who is only great in his own lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history.”

Historians routinely rank the presidents, sometimes according to specific categories, such as leadership, accomplishments, and character. They tend to agree on the truly great – the indispensables of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But historians also hold subjective – and variable – views.

Perhaps there should be an edict for pollsters – and historians – that no president can be pronounced “great” until 50 years after leaving office. One school of French academics used to believe one shouldn’t even write history until a century after an event to allow for distillation of more-impartial judgments.

Often, moderns are simply too close to render reliable verdicts. In 1932, Winston Churchill, then a journalist, said of Adolf Hitler, “I admire men who stand up for their country in defeat…. [He had] a perfect right to be a patriotic German if he chose.”

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