Monday, February 21, 2005

Some Really Depressing Poll Results

Two polls -- one commissioned by Washington College and one by CNN-USA Today -- show that large numbers of Americans rate Ronald Reagan as our greatest president. In the Washington College poll, he came in second only to Abraham Lincoln, and in the CNN-USA Today poll he led all others (tied for second were Lincoln and Bill Clinton). Further down both lists were Frenklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
What these polls show is an alarming lack of historical sense. Reagan -- who declared that trees were a major cause of pollution and tried to have ketchup passed off as a vegetable for school children -- greater than Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Truman, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson?
I don't think Americans are stupid, but I think this poll shows that they are extraordinarily ignorant of their nation's history. While the elevation of Reagan to the top of the list strikes me as particularly irrational, I would also question the high scores given to Clinton and Kennedy. All of this tells me that many Americans understand history with no more than a sort of "People magazine" perspective, in which both glamour and scandal trump substance.
But I want to dwell on Reagan for just a moment, because I find the lionizing of this man particularly troubling.
It may be true that George W. Bush's miserable presidency has made Reagan's look brilliant by comparison, but let's not forget the coarsening of political life that Reagan and his administration engendered. The most notable activity in Reagan's two terms was the Iran/Contra scandal, a deadly serious breach of the Constitution for which Reagan left to his successor, George H.W. Bush, the task of pardoning the criminals at its helm.
It seems particularly significant today, as W and his henchmen rattle their swords at Iran, that Reagan and his team subverted the Constitution by secretly shipping arms to a nation that had only recently held hundreds of U.S. citizens captive for more than a year.
I'm sure that any Red-staters who might stop by this blog today will glibly remind me that Reagan "crushed" Communism, as if the Soviet Union really needed anyone's help in being buried beneath its own intrinsic inconsistencies, cruelties and bureaucratic maneuverings. Sorry, guys. The Soviet Union would have failed even had Mr. Reagan not made kissy-face with Mikhael Gorbachev.
Reagan also has been widely and mystifyingly credited with somehow saving the American economy by creating the largest debt in our nation's history -- until the GW Bush administration topped it. Sorry again, guys. It took most of the Clinton administration to pull this country out of the abyss of debt created by Reagan and his Republican successor. But many of us remember that by the end of eight years of a Democratic administration, we were running a healthy budget surplus that has been squandered by the second Bush.
Reagan the greatest president? I don't think so. Not even in the top half.