And Reagan’s visible decline as a result of Alzheimer’s in his later years is often implied to be a fit description of his entire presidency. This assessment has given millions of young students an image of a half-wit, onetime movie star who somehow managed to fool voters into believing that he was instead a man of intelligence and action.
But a recent Quinnipiac poll of registered voters nationwide, asking them to rate “the best” and “the worst” presidents since World War II, reveals something interesting: Many of those young people who were taught history in the past few decades, and who have since become voters, don’t agree with the opinion of many of their former teachers, nor with the often cleverly slanted accounts of the Reagan years they read in their history books.
When asked which president since World War II they considered “the worst,” voters in the age group of 18-29 and 30-44, the two youngest categories in the survey, said George W. Bush. President Barack Obama came in second for this dubious distinction. When all age groups were included in the results, Obama was rated the overall worst. The poll has a margin of error of less than 3 percent.
The stunningly high percentage of younger voters who have abandoned Obama, both in rankings like the one cited here, and in recent job performance surveys, is a topic for another time. Keep in mind, too, that many younger respondents to surveys like this one tend to more thoroughly judge the presidents who served more recently and who thus were more a part of the respondents’ daily lives. So the harsh judgments of both Obama and Bush should be taken with that in mind.
But what about the often vilified Ronald Reagan? It appears that all of those classroom lectures and unflattering portrayals of Reagan in school textbooks had a negligible impact on those they were meant to persuade. Among the two youngest segments of respondents to the poll, Reagan as the “worst” president rated an almost statistically irrelevant 4 percent. And much to the chagrin of many in academia and the media, Reagan topped the overall survey as the nation’s “best” president in the modern era.
The youngest respondents in the survey, aged 18-29, rated Reagan third “best,” which put him in a virtual statistical tie with John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, the two presidents who tied for “best” among this demographic.
Consider a college-aged student of 10 years ago, who in the classroom was subjected to the same unflattering reviews of the Reagan presidency. That person could be at least 30 years old today, placing them in the age group 30-44 in the poll’s demographic breakdown. For that age group, Reagan was tops with 36 percent. Clinton was a distant second place as their choice for “best president.” Unsurprisingly, Reagan topped the list with older respondents as well.
To be certain, time has a way of healing wounds and allowing myths to become reality with the public. Reagan had his shortcomings, as do all leaders. But some of those shortcomings, such as the Iran-Contra scandal, have saturated our media and history books in a way that seems unbalanced when compared to how scandals such as the IRS targeting of conservative groups and the Benghazi cover-up are covered today.
Fortunately, students in the end are encouraged to make their own choices. And it is pretty clear they have decided to ignore many of their teachers when it comes to the Reagan legacy.
Matt Towery is author of the book “Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2008 Fight for the Presidency.”