News analysis: A great president? Only time will tell

Posted in United States | 11-Jun-04 | Author: R.W. Apple| Source: The New York Times

Thousands of people, from Eagle Scouts and construction workers to the famous and powerful, paid tribute on Thursday to former President Ronald Reagan at the Capitol Rotunda. A weeklong farewell concludes on Friday with funeral services at the National Cathedral and burial in California.
WASHINGTON Franklin D. Roosevelt once defined great presidents as those who were "leaders of thought at times when certain ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified." By that reckoning and most others, Roosevelt himself earned a place on the list of greats, rallying the nation during the Depression and leading it to the brink of victory in World War II. George Washington, who bent to the hard work of nation-building, Abraham Lincoln, who saved the union, and Thomas Jefferson, who codified some of its ideals, are other universal choices. Not by coincidence, all four have monuments in Washington. But what of Ronald Reagan, whose weeklong farewell tributes, reaching a climax Friday in a funeral at the National Cathedral and burial in California, have stirred such emotion and such largely laudatory comment? What will history, with its privileged vantage point far from the heat of partisan battles, conclude about him? Clearly, Reagan died a respected, perhaps even a beloved, man, although the affection was far from universal, as it is for any public figure. In office, his popularity, though dented, survived the Iran-contra affair, but popularity is never a reliable test of greatness. Harry Truman, now counted among the near-greats if not the greats, retrospectively admired for his prosecution of the cold war, left office with an approval rating of 23 percent. Warren Harding, now disdained, whose stated ambition was to be remembered as the country's "best-loved president," came close to that goal following his sudden death in 1923. It could be argued that Reagan's greatest triumphs came in his role as chief of state rather than as chief of government. He was often ignorant of or impatient with the policy minutiae that preoccupy most occupants of the Oval Office, sometimes with unfortunate consequences (as when Oliver North, a White House aide, ran amok, for instance).

But his extraordinary political gifts carried him through - his talents as a communicator, his intuitive understanding of the average American, his unfailing geniality even after being hit by an assassin's bullet, his ability to build and sustain friendships across partisan lines. Those gifts - and his conviction that words counted for far more in politics than mere deeds - enabled him to convince large majorities that as long as he was in charge, it would remain "Morning in America." They made it possible for him to redraw the nation's political map, moving the center so abruptly to the right that even the Democrat Bill Clinton would proclaim the end of "big government" and to remold his Republican Party in his own image.

The gifts gave him the eloquence to lead the country in mourning after the Challenger disaster and to celebrate "the boys of Pointe de Hoc" near Omaha Beach. Vice President Dick Cheney hailed Reagan as a graceful and gallant man, and more than that - "a providential man" who provided precisely what the nation and the world needed at a crucial moment. "But he was not a great president," said Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton University. "He was master at projecting a mood; he could certainly rally the country. He would have made a great king, a great constitutional monarch, but we do not have that form of government."

Success in war underpins the claims to greatness of many presidents. Andrew Jackson wins the plaudits of historians for broadening the character of American democracy by extending the franchise, but he was a celebrated soldier long before he became president, as were Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, whose standing has increased markedly since he left office. Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and James Polk were all wartime commanders in chief.

Reagan spent World War II, the global conflict fought and won by his generation, making training films in Hollywood. But he came to power as the cold war was nearing a climax, and he did all he could to hasten the process by beefing up the American military and delivering his bold challenge in Berlin to "tear down this wall." After that, it would have been hard for Mikhail Gorbachev to believe that Americans had lost their will to resist Soviet power, and Reagan joined with Gorbachev in helping to bring it about. Though it was the end result of 45 years of aggressive allied containment, the commander in chief, as always, got much of the credit. Without doubt, that will form a very important part of Reagan's legacy, as one aspect of his vision.

In his book "Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents," the historian Robert Dallek lists vision as a sine qua non of presidential greatness, along with "pragmatism, ability to achieve consensus, charisma and trustworthiness."

Few will deny Reagan's trustworthiness or his immense charisma, matched only in the modern era by Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and he demonstrated his pragmatism in rolling back some of his huge 1981 tax cuts with two tax increases when the cuts failed to produce as much revenue as he expected.

Reagan had another vision, but he fell well short of the ability to produce consensus behind it, then or now. Much of the country, including most of those who are physically, economically or otherwise disadvantaged, deeply resented and still resent his insistence that "government is the problem, not the solution."

Severe and continuing cutbacks in government services to the poor and vulnerable resulted, and the gulf dividing rich from poor widened.

If Reagan's celebrated optimism lifted the veil of malaise that darkened the Jimmy Carter era, it also obscured major problems. Many missed Carter's burning commitment to civil rights and liberties at home and human rights abroad.

African-Americans and trade union members felt particularly aggrieved, as did many Jews, who resented Reagan's participation in a ceremony in 1985 at a German cemetery where Nazi SS troops were buried.

To some degree, history's verdict is shaped by the values of the time in which that history is written, and who it is written by. H.L. Mencken, ever wary of pompous speeches and empty promises, rated Calvin Coolidge highly because, as he wrote, "There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance." Reputation is also shaped by perspective. A group of American and Australian political figures and others, assembled in Washington for a conference this week, disagreed sharply on Woodrow Wilson. The foreigners called him a flop, largely because of his rigid and eventually counterproductive idealism, while the Americans (like most historians) held him in higher esteem.

Historians may say that Kennedy held office for too short a time to achieve true greatness in the presidency, but for many around the globe he still embodies the best of the United States, which is why there are streets named for him and pictures of him hanging in houses all over the world. So far, Reagan has achieved no such status overseas, although as president he was held in far more esteem in Europe than George W. Bush is. His brand of radical conservatism had a counterpart in Britain under Margaret Thatcher, but it has achieved little success elsewhere. Some presidents leave behind records so contradictory as to cloud generalization. Richard Nixon's foreign policy achievements, most significantly his rapprochement with China, were eclipsed in his final years in office by domestic policy failings and his evident shortcomings as a moral leader. Vietnam blackened Lyndon Johnson's reputation and forced him from office, despite his tremendous achievements in domestic policy, notably in lifting the cruel yoke of segregation from black Americans. It is not entirely clear yet what those two presidents will most be remembered for - what one achievement or failure will attach to their names, at least in popular history, as the crusade against the trusts, the "malefactors of great wealth," attaches to Teddy Roosevelt's, and scandals attach to Ulysses S. Grant's, all but wiping out his role as a war hero. The "Reaganauts," as one of them said, have been out all week seeking to burnish their man's legacy. But hagiography will not determine their leader's ultimate standing, and whether he is entitled to be called great. Only what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called "the cool eye of history" will do that, many years hence.