HOW will historians rank Ronald Reagan as a president? Early ratings from the academic community - that liberal world where histories are written - consign Reagan to the lower third of US chief executives. In these assessments, Reagan is viewed as an actor, not a leader - indeed, as somewhat of a simpleton. Reagan deserves better than that. Revisionists will give Reagan his share of the credit for the meltdown of communism and the end of the cold war in Europe. Historians in time will remember that Reagan campaigned for a mutual cutback in armaments and that he always worked for arms reduction.
And they will remember that Reagan's military buildup contributed to the cave-in of a Soviet system that simply could not compete in an arms race while its economy was deteriorating. So while Gorbachev won the Nobel Prize, Reagan might well have shared in that accolade for persuading Gorbachev to throw in the towel.
Ben J. Wattenberg in his new book, ``The Universal Nation,'' writes: ``Reagan's real legacy should be obvious to historians: For all his flaws, he pushed America to think publicly about big things that were not on the anvil before he arrived. Were we too weak militarily? Was big government out of hand? Were we overtaxed? Were civil rights initiatives going awry? Was commercial innovation being smothered?''
Remember how historians bashed Eisenhower after he left office? Ike was called a boob - a nonachiever whose heart was more in playing golf or bridge with his cronies than in running the government.
Now the historians have ``discovered'' Ike as a genius who knew how to conduct a foreign policy that kept the US out of war. They hail his court appointments. And they have even decided that Ike was an intelligent man - and that he purposely expressed himself to reporters in a manner that would confuse them.
Jimmy Carter is making an even quicker recovery. When he left office, historians regarded Carter as a disaster, a president who presided over a self-proclaimed malaise. Now they hail him for his effort to move the nation to energy independence. They recall his championing of human rights in all nations. They remember his role at Camp David in bringing Sadat and Begin together. And they note with appreciation the way Carter has rolled up his sleeves and personally helped build houses for the poor.
I think that had it not been for Reagan's dealings with the Iranians in the Iran-contra scandal, his ``discovery'' by historians would already be under way. In a new autobiography, ``Ronald Reagan, An American Life,'' the former president tries to explain how those embarrassments - to his country as well as himself - came about.
Reagan says that it was ``representatives of Israel'' who convinced him that he should deal with ``a group of moderate, politically influential Iranians'' who would be taking over following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini.
But in ``hindsight,'' writes Reagan, ``it appears that despite Israel's repeated assurances that we were dealing with responsible moderates in Iran, some of those `moderates' may have had links to the Ayatollah Khomeini's government and were trying to obtain weapons under false pretenses.''
The highly persuasive role of Israel in those blunderings really wasn't adequately explored in the Iran-contra congressional hearings.
Reagan's musings on what he calls the Iran-contra ``mystery'' underscore his major weakness: his remoteness from what was going on in his own administration. Indeed, he almost sounds like a little boy when he writes: ``If I could do it over again, I would bring both of them into the Oval Office and say, `Okay, John (Poindexter) and Ollie (North), level with me. Tell me what really happened and what it is that you have been hiding from me. Tell me everything.'
``If I had done that, at least I wouldn't be sitting here, writing this book, still ignorant of some of the things that went on during the Iran-contra affair.''
As president, Ronald Reagan's presence was felt. But then there were those times when he was out of touch with his own presidency.