Trail Dust: Ranking American Presidents

This is a partial transcript from "The Beltway Boys," June 12, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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FRED BARNES, CO-HOST: Ranking the presidents is the topic of this week's trail dust.

The death of Ronald Reagan (search) puts new focus on his legacy and how he stacks up against other presidents, at least in the eyes of historians and scholars. A 1996 survey headed up by historian Arthur Schlesinger (search) shows Reagan number 25, sandwiched between Chester Arthur and George Herbert Walker Bush. He's below William Howard Taft and Rutherford B. Hayes, even below Bill Clinton, who's at number 20.

But a ranking done by scholars and historians put together by the Federalist Society shows in 2000 shows Reagan much higher. He's at number eight, between Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, and in the same league as Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson.

Mort, there are a couple of ways I think that of, of judging a president historically. One was done, which explains why Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are always the top three regardless of who's doing the survey, and that is they met this three-pronged test. They had an unprecedented challenge, they responded boldly, and they were successful.

Now, there's another test that I apply that comes from Sidney Hook, the philosopher back in the 20th century, who distinguished between an event-making leader and an eventful leader. They would both arrive, both would arrive at a fork in the historical road, but the event-making leader would have helped create the fork in the first place.

And, of course, Ronald Reagan shows as president whether to try to defeat communism or just get along, a peaceful coexistence, he chose to beat communism, or to try to beat communism, he succeeded, of course. But he had helped make that choice possible in the first place.

MORT KONDRACKE, CO-HOST: Yes. According to Reagan biographers Dinesh D'Souza and, and Lou Cannon, in 1980, at a meeting at The Washington Post, Reagan said two things. One, that communism cannot compete with us, and two, Reagan, can bring the Soviets to the negotiating table.

So this was, this was a strategy that, that he embarked on. He won the cold war. Mikhail Gorbachev did not win the cold war.

BARNES: Yes, yes.

KONDRACKE: And also, Reagan restored the country's morale and proved that the American presidency could, could still operate when people were saying that we needed a parliamentary system.

BARNES: Right.

KONDRACKE: And three, he transformed the political landscape, reviving American conservatism and arguing, arguably making it at least even with or surpassing liberalism ... for a while.

So the Beltway Boys' ranking of American presidents are, we, we think that Washington and Lincoln actually are tied for first. FDR is in third place. Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, who made America a continental country, is fourth. Ronald Reagan is fifth, and Harry Truman is sixth. And I guess we'd put Andrew Jackson, James Polk, and, and Dwight Eisenhower following.

So I think Reagan deserves a much higher place, certainly, than ... than he's been given in the past.

BARNES: Indeed.

KONDRACKE: On to the battleground polls.

There's been a whole slew of new ones this week, but in the interests of time, we're going to focus on the biggie.

In Florida, John Kerry has opened up a slight lead. The state has been tied for several past weeks. In Ohio, a new Los Angeles Times poll showed, shows Kerry with a 3-point lead there. Bush won Ohio by 4 points in 2000. In Michigan, Kerry has a 2-point lead. He's been leading in the polls in that state for the past several weeks. Gore won Michigan by 5 points in 2000. And in Wisconsin, the new L.A. Times poll shows that Bush has regained the lead. He's up by 2 points. Gore won that state by roughly 5,000 votes.

BARNES: So we've crunched the numbers, taking into account these and other new polls of the past two weeks. John Kerry still leads our Electoral Scoreboard, 306 to Bush's 232. Kerry's down slightly from our last count.

And by the way, the latest Fox News poll shows Kerry with a 2-point lead over Bush, 45 to 43.

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