Tuesday, July 6, 2010


The Siena College Research Institute has released the results of its fifth presidential ranking survey, placing Reagan 18th. The results, collated from the participation of 238 scholars, can be found in pdf here, and some analysis here.

Craig Shirley is hopping mad that Reagan scored so middling, but more so that he ranks below Obama, who came 15th. I'd agree that Obama is a weird presence on the list, and tha his ranking is distorted by the glamour and intensity of contemporary politics, and probably by the progressive bias within academia. I'd also say that the choice of Craig Shirley, a public relations man and former Reagan employee, as a contributor emphasises this. Sensitive to the liberal leanings of historians, or at least the accusation of liberal bias, Siena may have sought the insipid political "balance" found on cable news shows. If I were to rank Shirley on some list, incidentally, he'd gain points for imaginative language - "Reagan put the neck of Soviet communism under the heel of his cowboy boot and crushed the life out of it" - but lose points for forgetting Reagan's important, career-transitioning autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?, in his effort to portray Obama's memoirs as narcissistic self promotion.

Nevertheless, I also agree that Reagan should be higher. Looking at the breakdown, it shows that he scored highly in leadership and communication abilities, including his relationship with Congress. Brilliantly, and somewhat ambiguously, he is also ranked the third luckiest president. He is let down by his judicial and executive appointments, which may be a bit harsh, but the tendency towards the ideologically correct over the morally and legally scrupulous was certainly damning. He also scores very low, 34th, on "background", explained as "family, education and experience". Quite how you rank a presidential family, I don't know, and Reagan's education seems to me pretty average. He was, though, an immensely experienced presidential candidate - a two term Californian governor and union leader, a corporate insider and cultural elite.

His position is also let down by an unreasonably average score on "imagination". Did political hacks like LBJ, JFK, Clinton - and Obama - really have stronger imaginations than Reagan? The man was trained in Hollywood, for gooodness' sake. On "integrity", he comes a below average 26th, which on balance I think is fair. He had considerable personal integrity, but this was undermined by a lack of self-awareness, and it was not a quality which defined his often illusory, deceptive presidency. Finally, Reagan's lowest score is on "intelligence", where he comes 36th, 7th from bottom. Reagan's intelligence is often underestimated, so this seems unfair, but it is, after all, an illustrious list with many bright people on it.

As Shirley points out, on the polls which measure the public's ranking of presidents, Reagan has recently put in some very high appearances. I don't think this demonstrates the worthlessness and out-of-touch elitism of this list, though, but it suggests to me a category which is not included in the survey, and which might improve Reagan's score. There should be room for measuring a president's "resonance" or "remembrance" or even just "legacy". Presidents can still lead and wield symbolic power long after they are gone, and it is then that they become iconic and "great". Lincoln and Washington were successful and extraordinary executives, for example, but their greatness lies in their continued imprint on American politics and identity. An acknowledgement of Reagan's lasting power, whatever his political or personal mediocrities, should elevate him to a more suitable position in the top dozen presidents.

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