Ronald Reagan’s historical stature continues to grow — and now he’s at the top of the list in a new Gallup Poll as the greatest American President, ever:
Ahead of Presidents Day 2011, Americans are most likely to say Ronald Reagan was the nation’s greatest president — slightly ahead of Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton. Reagan, Lincoln, or John F. Kennedy has been at the top of this “greatest president” list each time this question has been asked in eight surveys over the last 12 years.
Presidents Day, celebrated on the third Monday of February each year, officially commemorates the Feb. 22 birthday of George Washington. The country’s first president is not regarded by Americans as the nation’s greatest president, however. Gallup’s Feb. 2-5 update shows that Washington comes in fifth on the list, behind Reagan, Lincoln, Clinton, and Kennedy.
In the eight times Gallup has asked this same “greatest president” question over the last 12 years, one of three presidents — Lincoln, Reagan, and Kennedy — has topped the list each time. Reagan was the top vote getter in 2001, 2005, and now 2011. Lincoln won in 1999, in two 2003 surveys, and in 2007. Kennedy was on top in 2000, and tied with Lincoln in November 2003.
Americans as a group have a propensity to mention recent presidents, not surprising given that the average American constantly hears about and from presidents in office during their lifetime, and comparatively little about historical presidents long dead. Four of the five most recent presidents are in the top 10 greatest presidents list this year — Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan.
Not surprisingly, members of each party pick one of their own party, Gallup notes. For instance Reagan tops among Republicans, Clinton among Democrats.
And Reagan is fascinating. When he was in office many considered him a conservative, but in recent years some historians (such as Gil Troy) have classified him as in reality more of a moderate because he showed flexibility on some key issues and was willing to sit down and talk with the opposition to seek true compromise — a huge contrast from many in the current incarnation of early 21st century talk show political culture tea party movement conservatives. (Many Democrats, liberals, Republicans and conservatives do not agree that Reagan was a moderate but historians are using a variety of criteria.)
PERSONAL NOTE: I am now reading superb book President Reagan The Role of a Lifetime by Lou Cannon. This 800-plus page is a very lively read, based on exhaustive reporting. HIGHLY recommended.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.