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Historians Rank Reagan With Zachary Taylor As A Mediocrity

December 9, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ He may have won the presidency in two solid landslides, but Ronald Reagan hasn’t won over America’s historians.

Asked to consider where Reagan fits in among the nation’s presidents, the historians rated him on par with Zachary Taylor or John Tyler, both considered mediocrities.

In a survey participated in by 481 historians, 79 percent ranked Reagan as average or worse. Only 1 percent called him ″great.″

But the professors who conducted the study said these opinions may mellow over the years.

Even historians critical of Reagan policies applauded what he did for the country’s morale, said Robert K. Murray of Penn State and Tim H. Blessing of Alvernia College in Reading, Pa.

They said that suggests ″some grounds on which a Reagan revisionism could be based,″ noting that it generally takes 25 or 30 years for a president’s place in history ″to achieve a stable resting place.″

But in the meantime, Martin Anderson, a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and Reagan’s former domestic policy adviser, rejected the historians’ first-blush judgment.

Anderson said it reveals nothing but their political tilt. He said academic historians often pose as evenhanded but are ″guided by pure political bias and bile.″

Murray and Blessing surveyed the historians for a revision of their 1988 book, ″Greatness in the White House.″

They sent 164 questions to about 750 historians chosen at random from a list kept by the American Historical Association. Sixty-three percent responded and:

-18 percent called Reagan a total failure;

-44 percent rated him as below average;

-20 percent saw him as above average or near great;

-1 percent ranked him as great.

-And the remaining 17 percent ranked him as average. The authors said Reagan’s score would place him between Taylor and Tyler.

Overall the historians characterized Reagan’s social policy as ″wrongheaded and malignant″ and his foreign policy as unnecessarily belligerent, Murray and Blessing said. Nine out 10 considered Reagan intellectually unqualified to be president.

Yet, despite those harsh judgments, many applauded Reagan’s leadership qualities. Nearly two-thirds saw Reagan as an expert at blending idealism and pragmatism; they ranked him high in the art of ‴getting people to follow him where he wanted to go.″

Michael Deaver, a longtime political adviser to Reagan, said he was surprised Reagan fared as well as he did.

″If Reagan got an even split among academicians, I’d say he must be doing something right,″ Deaver said. ″This is a guy who got in politics by telling the liberals on the campus to obey the rules or get out. This was not a guy who was thought of fondly by the academe.″

Anderson, at the Hoover Institution, added, ″Any survey of today’s current academic historians is spurious on its face unless you identify the political affinity of each respondent.″

Murray and Blessing surveyed the historians to update their original 1982 survey. In it, four presidents - Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson - were listed, in that order, as great and five were listed as failures - Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Richard Nixon, Ulysses Grant and Warren Harding.

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