Yet some historians have rated Carter, repudiated after one term, higher than Reagan, which tells us more about who has been doing the ranking than it does about Ronald Reagan.
In 1948, Arthur Schlesinger Sr. wrote for Life magazine a controversial article on a subject that has been the cause of spirited and acrimonious debate ever since. He listed the consensus of our academic elite as to which American presidents had been Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average and Failures.
Leading the list were Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and FDR. Below, but also among the Greats, were Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. The Near Greats were Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, John Adams and James K. Polk.
In 1962, Schlesinger followed with a New York Times piece, also based on the responses of historians, political scientists and journalists. This list had the same top seven. But Jackson had fallen to Near Great and Polk, who took the Southwest and California away from Mexico, had risen from 10th to eighth.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and others have since produced their own rankings. The latest in the field is Robert Merry, a lifelong journalist and now editor at The National Interest. In “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians,” Merry adds a new criterion. Did this president win a second term, and was he succeeded by a man of his own party?
For this would mean his contemporaries, the American people of that era, had judged him to be a good, successful or even great president.