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.
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Yes, even journalists, who take the first pass at history, can get it wrong.Skip to next paragraph
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Reagan’s sycophants contend he was truly great because he made Americans feel good about themselves and his policies made many of them richer. But, unlike Clinton, about whom we know too much, Reagan may be better remembered as a national enigma.
He is credited with tamping down the cold war. But that overlooks the fact that he had a near pathological hatred of the Soviet Union. One has to ask how much greatness ascribed to Reagan was actually a consequence of his wife, Nancy, whispering “peace” in his ear at night. One of her biographers makes a convincing case that it was she who nudged him into serious arms-reduction talks.
And although the cold war was winding down on his watch, credit should be shared with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and the godfather of glasnost, Alexander Yakovlev. Ultimately and perhaps inevitably, the Soviet Union imploded of its own backwardness.
Even Reagan’s purported greatness gets wobbly when superimposed over the likes of Dwight Eisenhower. Taking the measure of all the US cold-war presidents, Yale University’s John Lewis Gaddis hailed Ike as “the most subtle and brutal strategist of the nuclear age,” more so than the Nixon-Kissinger team.
Jean Edward Smith’s brilliant new biography correctly recognizes Eisenhower as “the most successful president of the 20th century,” with the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Yet, when Eisenhower left office 51 years ago, he was not highly regarded and was dismissively referred to as mediocre, a caretaker, a better general than chief executive. Ike was soon forgotten as the hoi polloi too quickly rushed to embrace the young, beautiful Jack Kennedy.
Americans are notoriously impatient to pass judgment. Perhaps it’s a function of the pace of the world in which we live. Our presidents can be best understood in historical context. We need to remember that no president is ever as bad as his enemies aver, and very few are equal to the adulation they receive.
Public pronouncements of presidential greatness often suffer from myopia. Fortunately, time has its own perspective.
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.