NEW YORK (AP) – Was Ronald Reagan a great president? For historians, many of whom never voted for him, it depends on the definition of “great.”

“This is where some of my fellow liberals in the scholarly world disagree, but I think he was a great president in the single most important way, which is conviction, strength,” said presidential scholar James McGregor Burns, whose many books include “Leadership,” an influential study of leadership qualities.

“I do not think he was a great president,” said fellow liberal Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a Pulitzer Prize winning historian. “But I think he was an effective leader who could change people’s minds and give voice to lurking feelings in people’s hearts.”

History is in theory written by the winners, but in practice it’s written by historians. And assessing Reagan, who died last weekend at age 93, has become a test case for separating personal beliefs from professional judgment.

As a president able to articulate a vision, fulfill that vision and shape his times, Reagan ranks among the very top, “right behind Theodore Roosevelt,” said Joseph Ellis, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Founding Brothers” and an acknowledged anti-Reagan voter.

In 1999, C-SPAN conducted separate polls of historians and viewers that asked respondents to rank the presidents. Historians placed him at No. 11, just below Lyndon Johnson and just ahead of James K. Polk. Viewers made him No. 6, just below Thomas Jefferson, but ahead of Johnson, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. Abraham Lincoln had the No. 1 spot on both polls.

Historians recognize Reagan’s great popular appeal, his oratory gifts and heroic image as the victor of the Cold War and upholder of old-fashioned virtues. But opinions differ on whether Reagan’s success was also the nation’s.

“I think he was a great leader, but he was always leading in the wrong direction,” said David Herbert Donald, professor emeritus at Harvard University and author of several acclaimed books on President Lincoln.

“His domestic policy was a disaster,” Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, said. “That’s an opinion. But there are facts, objective facts. He had an economic theory, Reaganomics, that was supposed to balance the budget and instead he ended up with those deficits.”

In Burns’ “Leadership,” the historian outlines what he calls a “transformational” leader, one who doesn’t simply make deals, but changes minds. Burns sees Reagan as this kind of president.

“I guess it becomes a question of one’s own beliefs, but as a student of leadership, I can admire what Reagan did,” Burns said.

“He pulled up thinking about conservatives from the shambles Barry Goldwater had made of it when he ran in 1964. Reagan modernized, broadened it, and, above all, stuck to it. His conviction shone through and that’s tremendously important.”

Asked to which presidents Reagan could be likened, Burns compared him to Franklin Roosevelt as a “transformational” president. Wilentz mentioned James K. Polk, a forceful, but less memorable executive. Donald and Schlesinger could not think of anyone.

“In purely personal terms, accessibility and humor and real wit, one might have to go back to Lincoln,” Donald said. “But in terms of his vision and how he saw the world, I can’t think of anybody.”

“I think he’s unique, in that he had these contradictory qualities,” Schlesinger said. “He had this great capacity to change people’s minds, to move them. … But I do not think he cared about people. He faked it. He was an actor.”

AP-ES-06-09-04 1423EDT



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