Were at the dedication of the Reagan...

FIVE PRESIDENTS

November 06, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

FIVE PRESIDENTS were at the dedication of the Reagan Library Monday. They were Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. This is the first time in history that five presidents have ever been together for any purpose.

In fact, only rarely have there been five presidents alive at the same time. The last time was 1861-1862, when six -- Abraham Lincoln, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, John Tyler and Martin Van Buren were alive. That's the record. Twice earlier -- in 1845 and in 1825-1826 -- five presidents were alive at the same time.

Reagan welcomed his guests with this remark, "The doors of this library are open now, and all are welcome. The judgment of history is left to you, the people. I have no fears of that. We have done our best."

Some judgments of history are already coming in, and from Reagan's perspective they are not that great. On the eve of the library's dedication, the Los Angeles Times Poll reported that 28 percent of Americans today believe Reagan was an "above average" president, 33 percent said "below average" and 39 percent said he was "just average." Eight percent said he was "one of the best"; 15 percent said, "one of the worst."

Polls like this are a joke. They are designed to reach a truly representative sample of Americans. The average American can't name a dozen presidents, much less weigh their respective accomplishments. Those numbers don't represent informed judgment. They're just guesses.

Strangely enough, however, those numbers aren't way out of line with the only poll of American historians (that is, historians at American universities teaching American history) on the Reagan presidency. In fact, the public rates Reagan higher than the scholars -- if you consider his grade based on those numbers cited above as "average."

The Presidential Performance Study rated the presidents down to but not including Reagan in 1988. On the basis of questionnaires filled out by 846 historians, a Penn State team concluded that Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and George Washington were the best, and Warren Harding, U.S. Grant and Richard Nixon were the worst.

This year, a report on a resurvey of 461 of those professors rated Reagan at 28th. That's out of 37. Both numerically and in the nomenclature of the Penn State study that is "below average."

Poor Reagan is lumped with Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, Zachary Taylor and Calvin Coolidge -- three Whigs, a Republican and a conservative Democrat. This confirms what many people have always known about history profs. They're liberal Democrats.

That bad Reagan was not (and if the deficits he built up don't negate the positive things he did, he'll probably eventually rate quite high in objective eyes).

For the record, the Penn State survey ranked Ford 24th, Carter 25th, and Nixon 34th.

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