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Reagan and Clinton as American idols? Not so fast.

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Historians routinely rank the presidents, sometimes according to specific categories, such as leadership, accomplishments, and character. They tend to agree on the truly great – the indispensables of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But historians also hold subjective – and variable – views.

Perhaps there should be an edict for pollsters – and historians – that no president can be pronounced “great” until 50 years after leaving office. One school of French academics used to believe one shouldn’t even write history until a century after an event to allow for distillation of more-impartial judgments.

Often, moderns are simply too close to render reliable verdicts. In 1932, Winston Churchill, then a journalist, said of Adolf Hitler, “I admire men who stand up for their country in defeat…. [He had] a perfect right to be a patriotic German if he chose.”

Yes, even journalists, who take the first pass at history, can get it wrong.

Reagan’s sycophants contend he was truly great because he made Americans feel good about themselves and his policies made many of them richer. But, unlike Clinton, about whom we know too much, Reagan may be better remembered as a national enigma.

He is credited with tamping down the cold war. But that overlooks the fact that he had a near pathological hatred of the Soviet Union. One has to ask how much greatness ascribed to Reagan was actually a consequence of his wife, Nancy, whispering “peace” in his ear at night. One of her biographers makes a convincing case that it was she who nudged him into serious arms-reduction talks.

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