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Harris Sherline: Great Leaders Who Stood the Test of Time

History often changes how former presidents are perceived

Only time can give us a perspective on the relative importance of great leaders. History often views them quite differently than they were perceived during their lifetimes.

One notable example is Harry S. Truman, who was generally considered to be a small-time politician who had the presidency thrust upon him with the untimely death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman had been relegated to such a minor role in the administration that he wasn’t even aware we were building the atom bomb at the time, which was ultimately used to bring an end to the war with Japan. Today, Truman is regarded by both historians and the general public as a great leader, who had the courage and strength of character to make difficult decisions.

We recently celebrated the 100th birthday of President Ronald Reagan, who was castigated by many people as a dunce and too old to carry out the responsibilities of the presidency, when he took office in 1981.

Today, the Media Research Center notes: “We feel that Ronald Reagan was clearly one of our greatest presidents. As the nation prepares to commemorate Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, it is important to note that during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the liberal media had nothing but contempt for him. They seized every opportunity to cast him as a foolish, out-of-touch B-actor who was just a puppet of his manipulative and sinister aides.

“Even after his presidency, when it was obvious to conservatives and liberals alike that Ronald Reagan’s unwavering support for our nation and for democracy itself had broken the back of the Soviet Union and lifted our nation out of an economic disaster, the media attempted to rewrite the history of his presidency. The ‘news’ media continue to try to diminish, distort and discredit his contributions in hopes of eroding and ultimately destroying his legacy.”

It is undoubtedly too soon to get a truly historical perspective on Reagan, but it is clear, even after the few short years since his death in 2004, that he is now considered by many to be one of America’s great leaders.

An ABC poll conducted in 2000 asked, “Who do you think was the greatest American president?” The results are interesting and somewhat surprising. The public ranked them as follows:

» 1. Abraham Lincoln (19 percent)

» 2. John F. Kennedy (17 percent)

» 3. Franklin Roosevelt (11 percent)

» 4. No opinion (10 percent)

» 5. Ronald Reagan (9 percent)

» 6. George Washington (8 percent)

» 7. Bill Clinton (7 percent)

» 8. Theodore Roosevelt (8 percent)

» 9. George H.W. Bush (4 percent)

» 10. Thomas Jefferson (3 percent)

» 11. Harry Truman (2 percent)

» 12. Richard Nixon (2 percent)

» 13. Jimmy Carter (1 percent)

» 14. Dwight Eisenhower (1 percent)

For one thing, the founders — Washington and Jefferson — weren’t at the top of the ranking. Perhaps another curiosity is that Clinton was included at all.

A later Gallup poll, in 2007, about presidential greatness asked, “Who do you regard as the greatest United State president?” The respondents ranked them as follows:

» 1. Abraham Lincoln (18 percent)

» 2. Ronald Reagan (16 percent)

» 3. John F. Kennedy (14 percent)

» 4. Bill Clinton (13 percent)

» 5. Franklin Roosevelt (9 percent)

» 6. Other/None/No Opinion (8 percent)

» 7. George Washington (7 percent)

» 8. Harry Truman (3 percent)

» 9. George W. Bush (2 percent)

» 10. Theodore Roosevelt (2 percent)

» 11. Dwight Eisenhower (2 percent)

» 12. Thomas Jefferson (2 percent)

» 13. Jimmy Carter (2 percent)

» 14. Gerald Ford (1 percent)

» 15. George H.W. Bush (1 percent)

» 16. Richard Nixon (0 percent)

It’s interesting to note that the later poll added George W. Bush and Ford to the list but didn’t include one of our founders, John Adams or Lyndon B. Johnson, who launched the War on Poverty during his administration.

As for President Barack Obama, how is he likely to be viewed by history? Will future generations and historians consider him a successful president or a failure, or perhaps just a mediocre leader?

There’s no way of knowing at this early date, but it’s clear that he is dealing with a multitude of issues and situations, both domestically and around the world, that undoubtedly will be taken into account when sufficient time has elapsed to provide greater perspective about his time in office to judge his performance.

One thing for sure, his brief time in office has already been marked with intense public reaction, both pro and con, to his policies and leadership style. Only time will tell where he will ultimately rank among America’s great presidents — if at all.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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