For Kevin Baker to place President Ronald Reagan in the overrated category (“Overrated & Underrated,” October 2004) is preposterous. In addition to sweeping away the dark days of Vietnam, Watergate, and cardigans from the minds of Americans, Reagan single-handedly won —no, that word needn’t appear between quotation marks—the Cold War. Millions of Eastern Europeans who once lived under Communist rule now live in freedom. The fall of the Soviet Union did not occur, I note, just following the Presidency of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, or Carter. Its implosion began under Reagan, and it ended under Reagan’s successor, who happened to have been his Vice President for eight years.
Beating the U.S.S.R. and proving to the world that détente and containment are nothing more than fools’ games was Reagan’s true accomplishment. Firing more than 11,000 air-traffic controllers also ranks high on that list. This was not, as the author of the piece claims, a moment of “destruction”; it was a moment of courage. Robert Poll, president of the Professional Air-Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO), was found in contempt by a federal judge and ordered to pay $1,000 a day in fines. All of the controllers were in violation of the law. To argue that Reagan was wrong is to argue that our laws should be ignored.
In regard to Kevin Baker’s choice of Ronald Reagan as the most overrated President, I have no quarrel. History will judge. However, I do think it is disingenuous to omit the most important accomplishment of Mr. Reagan’s presidential record. He ended inflation. Maybe he wasn’t the greatest President just because he achieved this, and he certainly wasn’t the greatest politician of the twentieth century. By the metric of curing inflation, Iron Maggie beat him to it, facing a substantially more difficult task in her country. Nonetheless, I ask Mr. Baker to name one country with runaway inflation that has a standard of living above Third World, and then give some credit to the man who got America out of that trap.
I’d like to say a few words in defense of James Branch Cabell. Just because he was overrated in his own generation doesn’t mean he still doesn’t have a cult following, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” To say that Jürgen is “a medieval fantasy” is like saying that Douglas Adams’s celebrated five-volume trilogy Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is “about space travel.” Cabell is what Douglas Adams might have been if he’d grown up in the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe. Dark, but wicked funny.
As a fan of American Heritage and of the annual “Overrated & Underrated” issue, I am concerned about the entry this year about musicals. Ethan Mordden is one of our finest authorities on the musical theater, and his case is, as always, well stated. But to choose one musical for both categories is heading toward a slippery slope. As I read his précis of My Fair Lady , I wondered how many of the shows that this office represents could well be described in the same manner. The notion of what’s overrated and what’s underrated is made a whole lot less fun if anyone is allowed to argue both sides with one item. Please don’t make that part of the exercise in the future.
While I enjoyed your “Overrated & Underrated” piece (as I always do), and the rest of the issue was excellent, I have one criticism: Lee “overrated” and Grant “underrated”? I’m sorry to be so cynical, but what else is new? “The Marble Man” lost men in prodigious numbers, despite Grant’s having the reputation as a butcher, and in the end he lost, while Grant won when nobody else came close. I’d have preferred to see an informed opinion about whether any two of the following were overrated or underrated: Forrest, Jackson, Johnston, Sheridan, Sherman, or Thomas.
I would suggest that the most underrated general is George H. Thomas, known as Pap to his Army of the Cumberland and as the Rock of Chickamauga to the North at large. Never fully trusted in Washington, because he came from Virginia, Thomas had the distinction among Virginia’s generals (thanks in part to remaining loyal to the Union) of never breaking his oath of allegiance, never having to surrender, and (thanks to his own abilities) never losing a battle. His meticulous planning and preparation sometimes infuriated Grant and others, but with a little help from John Bell Hood his command at Franklin and Nashville won the last major battles of the war.
I don’t think it’s accurate for Michael Korda to claim Lee defeated a “succession of inept generals.” George McClellan and Joseph Hooker were very competent organizers, planners, and strategists. It was Lee who made them seem inept.