WASHINGTON - A book released Thursday ranks President Reagan 8th among 39 U.S. presidents with records substantial enough to evaluate.
"The reputations of the controversial recent presidents, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, are particularly likely to either grow or lessen as we gain more perspective on their accomplishments and failures," said one contributor, Northwestern Law School professor James Lindgren of Chicago. "But for now, the consensus on Reagan is 'near great'."
He directed a survey of 78 professors of law, political science and economics in 2000 as part of the preparation for the book, "Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst In the White House."
They included 23 scholars who volunteered that Reagan is over-rated and 16 who volunteered that he is under-rated, Lindgren said in an interview. They were carefully selected in order to balance liberal and conservative viewpoints, he said.
Why does Reagan rank so high? Interviews this week with a variety of other economists, presidential scholars and political scientists showed that, regardless of their personal political views, they shared a remarkable consensus on what was important about the Reagan years.
Most emphasized these developments:
The cold war thawed.
Reagan reached arms control agreements with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the disintegration of the Soviet Union within months of Reagan's departure from office.
"It's silly to say he ended the cold war. That's like saying that Sherman's march was the reason the North won the Civil War," said political scientist Mary Stuckey, an expert in presidential rhetoric at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "But nobody can deny that he contributed greatly."
Reagan sped up President Jimmy Carter's defense build-up.
Defense spending rose 93 percent during Reagan's eight years in office, while all other federal spending rose by only 61 percent.
That did not include his administration's clandestine support for anti-communist forces, some idealistic and others unsavory or mercenary, in wars that killed thousands of people in places as far apart as Nicaragua and Afghanistan. It did include the cost of invading Grenada and starting the Strategic Defense Initiative, which so far has spent $80 billion searching for a workable anti-missile defense.
"The result of the over-spending back then is that our long-term spending on the military could go down," said Ronald Kahn, a professor of politics at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. "We no longer need to be geared up to fight two major wars at a given time."
He presided over an economic revival.
The gross domestic product, which is one measure of the size of the U.S. economy, had grown only 41 percent in eight years under Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. But it shot up by 70 percent under Reagan.
The 7.5 percent unemployment rate at his inauguration had dropped to 5.2 percent by the time he waved good-bye to Washington in January 1989. Consumer price hikes of 10.3 percent a year fell to 4.8 percent.
"Happiness is good for the economy, and Ronald Reagan was one happy guy," said Dwight Lee, an economist at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business in Athens, Ga. "You can almost think of Reagan as the Prozac president. He knew that that when you go to work in a good mood, you do more than when you're down in the dumps."
He cut the top income tax rates.
"He got it down to 28 percent. It's back up to 35 percent today, but that's still below the level of 50 percent in the 1970s," said political scientist Colleen Shogan at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. The debate over whether the economic stimulus from those cuts was worth the loss of revenue from high-income taxpayers continues to this day.
Rising incomes and lower interest rates let more families buy a home.
After adjustments for rising consumer prices, real family incomes grew 12.1 percent for whites, 11.6 percent for African Americans and 4.8 percent for Hispanics during the Reagan years. Conventional mortgage rates, hovering around 15 percent when he took office, had slipped below 10 percent by the time he left.
He didn't try to stop the transformation of the U.S. economy.
He let farm equity (farmers' assets minus their debts) fall from $1 trillion to $654 billion. Sales of imported cars rose 50 percent faster than the sale of domestic cars. The number of homes with computers rose from 750,000 in 1981 to 22.4 million by 1989.
His drive to deregulate businesses had mixed results.
Reagan centralized control over federal regulations by creating the White House office that still reviews and sometimes revises new rules issued by any federal agency.
His agency appointees were so reluctant to enforce existing rules that they were often challenged in Congress or the courts over environmental, labor, civil rights or worker safety laws.
The government had to spend billions bailing out federally insured depositors whose deregulated savings and loans went belly up.
Reagan, who filled half of the nation's federal judgeships during his eight years, often chose young nominees who still dominate those courts.
"For the most part, most of them remain (philosophically) loyal to the Reagan revolution," Shogan said.
He united the Republican party and expanded its ranks.
"There's the East Coast Republicans, who gave us Nelson Rockefeller and the first George Bush, and there's the Southern populist, Newt Gingrich folk; President Reagan made them play nice together," Stuckey said. "He was an unembarrassed patriot, which helped expand the party's appeal."
She said, "If you were white and middle class during the 1980s, it could be profoundly satisfying to hear his story about how America was morally right and always about freedom and equality. He ignored the history of the excluded, of racial tension and colonialism and American Indians and gender issues."
Reagan never did win more than 11 percent of the black vote. The gender gap, in which men are more likely than women to vote for Republicans, mushroomed under Reagan, said Texas A&M political scientist George Edwards II, editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly.
"He said the federal government was the problem not the solution," Edwards recalled. "But it turned out the federal government did have supporters, and the states and localities didn't want to take over federal burdens."
One result was that Reagan never met his goals of eliminating annual deficits, because spending rose faster (up 68.5 percent) than receipts (up 65.3 percent) during his presidency.