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Polls Rate Presidents, Rankle Historians

Sun., Feb. 9, 1997

If misery loves company, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton can take comfort: All three get only mediocre ratings in the two newest surveys to rate the pantheon of presidents.

Among the 41 presidents, Bush ranks 22nd, Clinton 23rd and Reagan 26th in a 300-page book, “Rating the Presidents,” published this month by Citadel Press. The ratings are based on a poll of 719 historians, political scientists and others around the country.

America’s three most recent presidents are lumped among 12 in the average-low category based on a survey of 32 jurors by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. for The New York Times Magazine in December.

Presidential rankings invariably provoke spirited debate among those who feel passionate about their presidents, and the latest entrants in the ratings ritual are no exceptions.

“There You Go Again, Liberal Historians and the New York Times Deny Ronald Reagan His Due,” the Heritage Foundation complains in a headline in its March-April issue of Policy Review magazine.

“Reagan belongs on Mount Rushmore,” writes William F. Buckley Jr.

All sides acknowledge the particular difficulty of rating presidents of recent vintage, with Schlesinger predicting these men are the most likely to rise or fall in future surveys.

That’s what happened to Eisenhower: He crept from 22nd in a 1962 survey by Arthur Schlesinger Sr. to average-high in the younger Schlesinger’s latest survey and ninth in “Rating the Presidents,” written by William J. Ridings Jr. and Stuart B. McIver.

It wasn’t until Eisenhower’s presidential papers became available in the 1970s that the impression of him as a “sleepy, symbolic leader” gave way to the idea that he was well informed but used intermediaries to carry out his will, said Fred Greenstein, a scholar at Princeton University and an Eisenhower biographer.

The truly great, all sides agree, achieved that stature by leading the country boldly through times of particular trial, such as the Civil War, World War II and the Great Depression.

Still, some historians shrink at the notion of assigning grades at all.

“It’s an empty and vacuous exercise,” says Greenstein. “Presidential greatness is in the eye of the beholder.”

Further, Greenstein says, the rankings condense different qualities into one result. Is it useful, he asks, to give Richard Nixon an “A” for foreign policy and an “F” for dirty politics and then average the two?


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