Through rose-tinted spectacles?
February 19, 2001 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Through rose-tinted spectacles? It's media waffle for a quiet news day, and comes on the back of a wave of nostalgia, but Reagan's "victory" in this latest poll feels like the triumph of selective memory, and of the desire to reassociate the presidency with jelly-bean eating. (FDR trails in fifth, and there's no mention of Woodrow Wilson, though Carter and Nixon get a look-in.) Which makes me wonder: does the US have a clear sense of its history, as far as Presidents are concerned?
posted by holgate (15 comments total)
What I wonder is, can anyone cite what Reagan did that had a good & lasting effect on the US? Iran-Contra? Trickle-down economics? Huge deficit? Maybe I'm missing something (hey, I was only in elementary school at the time), but I definitely agree with holgate's "selective memory" idea.
posted by zempf at 10:04 AM on February 19, 2001

Exactly zempf - you beat me to the punch. The only historic thing I can remember was his "tear down this wall" speech, which was a derivative, pale copy of the dramatic challenge that JFK had made years earlier. To put Reagan above Lincoln or Jefferson is just plain bizarre. Maybe the question should have been rephrased to "which president do you remember most?"

Reagan's legacy - broken "trickle-down" economics, Iran/Contra affair, and the acknowledgment that yes indeed, we do not require intelligence in our leaders. Sigh.
posted by kokogiak at 10:10 AM on February 19, 2001

No need to get excited. Let's remember that Bill Clinton Came in fourth in this same poll. And his most famus speech had to do with "...that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

posted by Dr. Boom at 10:15 AM on February 19, 2001

Oh, I completely agree: having Clinton as a choice reminds me of those "greatest musician of all time" polls which invariably place popsters like Britney Spears at the top.
posted by holgate at 10:29 AM on February 19, 2001

I think this is more a case of sympathy for the guy. There's been a lot of news recently about his Alzheimers and then the broken hip. I think that plays on people's opinions in the short term.

I know this might seem strange but as far as U.S. presidents are concerned, I'm kind of getting into Martin Van Buren at the moment. I mean, anyone called the "Magician" had to have a couple of superior qualities.
posted by leo at 10:29 AM on February 19, 2001

Yeah Van Buren is the man... hey for some good presidential stats (a lot more interesting than lame popular opinion polls) check out this page, which has lists by profession, height, marital status, mason membership, etc etc etc.

You'll find stuff like: only one US president has been divorced (Reagan) and only one had no principal profession (Kennedy). Also, Georgey W. is the first right-handed president in 20 years (Bush, Reagan, and Clinton were all lefties)
posted by cell divide at 10:35 AM on February 19, 2001

Man-on-the-street polls are wildly unreliable, yet we persist in doing them and reporting them as proof of one thing or another. Most Americans probably can't identify the 42 men who have been president, let alone rate them.

This is last year's C-SPAN poll of historians, who generally have a much better grasp for these things. Reagan rated #11. There was a more recent historians' ranking but I'll be damned if I can find a link to it now.
posted by briank at 10:43 AM on February 19, 2001

First of all, you have to keep in mind that in polls like this, people tend to pick a) who they really know (which lends a strong bias to recent presidents whose administrations they've experienced themselves), and b) who they're emotionally attached to politically.

Note, for example, that Bill Clinton came in 4th. Whatever your politics, it's one hell of a stretch to give Clinton the title "best president of all time." But he's the first name that comes to mind, and a lot of people love him for being the first Dem after 12 years of the GOP. So he got a lot of votes. Just as Reagan totally reenergized conservatives in the 80s, after a couple of decades of aimless wandering topped off by Watergate.

And then note how many people named Bush Sr, Carter, and Nixon himself, followed by essentially every president that served in the last 70 years. This is a mind game more than it is a rational look at the accomplishments and impact of each individual president.

Once you get beyond the mid-20th century, the only names that pop up are Washington and Lincoln. Why? Because American kids are taught in school that Washington and Lincoln were the only two really important pre-1900 presidents. All the others are treated as mere footnotes to history. (Yes, this is stupid, but welcome to the American public school system.)

That said, the wording of holgate's post makes it obvious he's looking at this through his own spectacles, ones tinted liberally. He asks the question as if it ought to be completely impossible for anyone to rationally believe Ronald Reagan was a great president. But the reality is, he was. Regardless of your own political leanings, it is unquestionable that the Reagan Revolution existed, that it caused a massive sea change in the way the US government operated and in what Americans expected their government to be. Remember, after FDR completely changed our government by instituting liberal/socialist programs, every president after him for the next half-century, both Republicans and Democrats, continued to expand them and create more of them. The Roosevelt Doctrine dictated the way our government operated for 50 solid years. Until Reagan came along and said, "Wait a minute, shouldn't we take a look at some of this stuff and the effects it's having?" Without going into a lot of detail here (since most of you get the gist of it anyway), the changes he instituted - let's call them the Reagan Doctrine or Reaganism - have determined the course of the US government ever since. Every president since has built his own administration on the base of the Reagan ideology, and the public has supported it. (Even Clinton fumbled like crazy until he moved center-right.) For those of you in the UK, he's the equivalent of Thatcher. And the basic tenets of Thatcherism are mostly intact today; Blair has to completely cleanse the Labour Party of the so-called "loony left" to get elected at all.

So, in short, Reagan had an effect, a massive effect, on not only how this country was run, but on how we as Americans look at ourselves. The majority of Americans think both changes were extremely positive. And if that isn't what makes a "great president," well, what does?

An extra anecdote: When Reagan's 90th birthday was celebrated last week or so, it got tons of press coverage, and it was almost 100% positive, downright hagiographic. All from the same reporters and pundits that attacked him tooth and nail during his Administration. I couldn't believe it, but it shows that, in hindsight (which is always 20/20, y'know), the vast, vast majority of Americans think Ronald Reagan did many great things for this country, putting it back on track fiscally, philosophically, and psychologically after the infamous "malaise" of the 60s-70s.

Wait until he dies. You will see an outporing of emotion this country hasn't seen since JFK was assassinated. Mark my words.

Oh, one last thing: Just a couple weeks ago, a new book came out collecting and analyzing the writings, Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America. This book will disprove the "amiable dunce" theory of Ronald Reagan amongst the dwindling numbers of people that still believe he was an intellecual retard.

(For the record, I was a Democrat during the Reagan Administration. I even voted for Dukakis.)
posted by aaron at 11:01 AM on February 19, 2001

(When I started writing that, only Holgate's original post was there. Sorry.)
posted by aaron at 11:04 AM on February 19, 2001

I think that answers a lot of what I was thinking, aaron. There's definitely a popular historical vacuum for the years between Washington and Lincoln, and yet this was precisely when the nation was being built.

The big distinction, I think, between the Reagan legacy and that of Thatcher, is that Reagan retains a "warm glow" alongside his administrative legacy, in part because of his forced retirement from public life, but also because the fixed term usually encourages a graceful exit. (Thatcher had to be thrown out on her icy arse, and still haunts British politics to this day.) But that popular respect is for something quite apart from his political reputation (or even his political ability): it's in memory of a nation ostensibly at ease with itself.

(And to acknowledge my roseate liberalism: I'm for Attlee, not Churchill. Greatness comes in many shades.)
posted by holgate at 11:30 AM on February 19, 2001

The most important single thing that happened during the Reagan administration was the massive military buildup. That won the Cold War, which is certainly historically important.

This includes, among other things, introduction of medium range nuclear missiles into Europe. The USSR had them, the US asked that they be removed, the USSR refused -- so the US deployed its own. Once that was done, the USSR suddenly got interested in arms reductions, and both systems were removed.

But the overall military buildup presented the USSR with an unsolvable dilemma: match it and go bankrupt, or don't match it and dissolve. They tried to match it, failed, went bankrupt, and dissolved anyway.

So not only did the Reagan military buildup end the Cold War, it resulted in the end of the USSR.

That said, I doubt anyone at the time really expected that result. But it remains true that it did cause both of those things and I doubt seriously anyone would say that the end of the Cold War was either trivial or bad.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:11 PM on February 19, 2001

If memory serves, I was told once by an asture teacher that to be a great president, one has to be in office during a truly huge crisis and then to overcome it and prevail. This would include presidents in place during any of are "bigger" wars, those we won and it would include the Great Depression.
To sum up what the GOP has as a main goal in few words: eliminate every program FDR put in place. But Ronnie and now Bush still will not dismantle (totally) Social Security and minimum wage and unemployment and medicare etc.
There may exist (or can be made up) a second tier of presidents who are near-greats, but for now: Lincoln and FDR. George became great for winning the war and was president after; so too Ike.
If carving a face into Rushmore indicates anything, then Teddy? Course not. Why not Polk? Under him we grabbed lots of land (Calif especially) that did not belong to us etc etc.
I guess then we have to first decide what constitutes greatness in a president.
posted by Postroad at 1:25 PM on February 19, 2001

The majority of Americans think both changes were extremely positive.

Funny, the only evidence you have to support this assertion is that the media — whom you've previously labeled as “liberal” — is very supportive of a conservative version of history.

The most important single thing that happened during the Reagan administration was the massive military buildup. That won the Cold War, which is certainly historically important.

If you totally discount the sustained human rights abuses by the Reagan Adminstration, and believe in the “Evil Empire” media campaign, then you’d be right.

“Republicans have two blind spots: their deification of Reagan and their hatred of Clinton.” — Bill Maher

Republicans who support Reagan support a man who said these things:

Regarding Vietnam protestors:
“...some American [troops] will die tonight because of the activity in our streets.”

Regarding the environment:
"80% of air pollution comes from trees and other vegetation."

Regarding nuclear war:
"A nuclear missile once launched could always be recalled."

And yet, Republicans continue down their road of narrow conservativism, thinking whatever happened in the 80s must’ve been peachy. They disregard (even in this thread, I'm the first one to bring it up) the millions of dollars given to death squads in El Salvador to undermine Nicaruagan soverignty, invaded Grenada with some 6,000 American troops to oppose a few dozen Cuban regulars and some militiamen (who’d been told to stand down, but were forced to defend themselves against American aggression) and dodged questioning regarding his complicity in Iran-Contra. The latter was an impeachable offense, although it was overshadowed by a timid Congress and, in recent years, a blowjob.

Reagen’s foreign policy is marked by the largest and longest peace time military build-up, which America has yet to recover from and in smaller countries he supported subversion, terrorism and aggression otherwise known as the “Reagan Doctrine.”

I am not in the least proud to have Reagan as a former president, but neither am I proud of Clinton or the Bush Dynasty. Collectively, these Presidents have acted as little more than figureheads for corporations to the detrimant of individuals. They’ve succeded in keeping wages stagnate since the 70s for anyone outside of the highest tax bracket, ruined worker’s rights, dismantled civil rights and have waged a continual top-down Class War by gutting welfare, social security and education budgets.

This is the recent American legacy: Government for the rich, by the rich; Everyone else is lost to the vagaries of fate.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 2:02 PM on February 19, 2001

I'm no Reagan-basher, but what disturbed me was that it was all recent guys. Disturbing. This is what happens when you hav football coaches teaching history, guys. I mean, Clinton and Reagan are better presidents than Washington and Jefferson? What?
posted by dagnyscott at 8:12 PM on February 19, 2001

It's just a popularity poll. On the other hand, the results weren't markedly different from this 1998 poll of historians. Incidentally, the Keys to the White House [a site I run -- boy is it looking ugly to me these days] system has thirteen factors to consider in predicting whether an incumbent party will retain the presidency, grounded in a theory of successful governance as the overriding influence on an election. Though the system is only applied to elections from 1860 forward, there's just a single election where the incumbent party had all thirteen keys in its favor: 1904's re-election of TR. Twelve-key elections were 1936 (FDR) and 1956 (HST). Eleven-key elections were 1868 (Lincoln/Johnson), 1940 and 1944 (FDR), and 1984 (Reagan). For my money FDR compiled the best overall record of successful governance. Reagan did remarkably well (11 and 10 keys in his two terms). Bush I and Clinton I+II were 7, 8, and 8 respectively, which is just middling. The worst? 1876 (Grant) and 1960 (Eisenhower!).

Whatever you may think of it as a predictive system -- it was right for 2000, but only because its rules favor the popular vote -- I think it's a good way to tot up the success or failure of a given presidency.
posted by dhartung at 10:16 PM on February 19, 2001

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