Ronald Reagan may still be a triumphant and beloved figure to the American people, but the historians who evaluate presidential performance have consigned him to the cellar. In the first significant measure of his standing, scholars have rated Reagan "below average" -- down with five other mediocrities such as Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce.
Nearly 500 of the nation's top history professors responded to the Murray- Blessing update survey on presidential performance. They placed Reagan 28th on a list that includes 37 of the 40 U.S. Presidents. William Henry Harrison, who died after a month in office, and James Garfield, assassinated after six months, were not ranked. George Bush, still at work, is not eligible.
With six categories available, ranging from "great" (Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, F.D.R.) to "failure" (Andrew Johnson, Buchanan, Nixon, Grant, Harding), Reagan was placed in the the next-to-last group. Reagan was outranked by Jimmy Carter and Jerry Ford ("average") and topped only Nixon of the modern Presidents.
The rating of Presidents has been serious business since Harvard's Arthur Schlesinger Sr. made an informal tally among 50 colleagues in 1948. In 1981 Robert Murray (now retired) and Tim Blessing of Pennsylvania State University took up where Schlesinger left off. This week Blessing will walk bravely into a meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Louisville and deliver a paper on the new poll results. Reagan partisans will start to climb the walls.
The historians gave Reagan low marks on nearly everything, from his mind (92% said he did not have the right intellect for the job) to Administration corruption (exceeded only by Nixon's government). He got little credit for ushering in a new era of prosperity but received most of the blame for the deficits and the 1981-82 recession.
On foreign affairs, the rating was mixed. The scholars found Reagan's Middle East policy "a record of ineptitude" but applauded his handling of relations with the Soviet Union. Oddly, the academics approved of Reagan's style of management and believed he had a rare knack for "getting people to follow him where he wanted to go." Plainly, few of the professors liked where he went.
Such a harsh and inclusive indictment will raise further questions about the partisanship and competence of the historians as well as about Reagan. Their judgments are strikingly out of phase with those of the electorate. "A crushing 91.8% of historians believe that the American people have overestimated Mr. Reagan," writes Blessing. Put another way, the scholars think that the plain folks did not quite understand what was going on.