Paul  Kengor

Because of a bitter, increasingly costly war in Iraq, Americans are questioning their president’s leadership more than ever before, and George W. Bush has watched his approval ratings plummet to all-time lows.

Such challenging times were no stranger to past presidents—including three born in this month when America honors Presidents Day: Washington and Lincoln led their nation to victory in wars that threatened to rip apart their country; similarly, another president who sought to lead America to victory in a difficult war likewise persevered—Ronald Reagan.

It was Reagan’s victory over Soviet communism that won him the accolades he now receives, and which has earned him the level of gold standard by which Republicans measure George W. Bush. A December Gallup poll found that Reagan is the most popular modern president, with 64% of respondents judging him outstanding/above average and only 10% rating him below average/poor, far outpacing Bush, who rated the most unpopular. An extraordinary June 2005 survey by the Discovery Channel and AOL, which included 2.4 million participants, declared Reagan the “greatest American of all time,” beating Lincoln and Washington.

Actually, Reagan has been rating this high for a decade. A long list of top scholars—most of which never voted for Reagan—rate the 40th president highly: Harvard’s late Richard Neustadt, Yale’s John Lewis Gaddis, popular historians Michael Beschloss and David McCullough, to name a few. Even liberal politicians, from Bill Clinton to Ted Kennedy, now praise Reagan. Reagan “will be honored as the president who won the Cold War,” explains Kennedy.

And it is Reagan’s Cold War triumph that offers parallels for George W. Bush’s struggles in the War on Terror.

This is the first of four articles noting lessons for Bush from Reagan’s experience. But before considering tips from Reagan, we need to appreciate some significant differences in the two presidents—and some key lessons for Bush’s detractors:

Obviously, Bush lacks Reagan’s communication skills and ability to disarm political opponents with gentle wit. This has enabled his opponents to define public perception of his handling of the war, in a way Reagan’s critics could not. Bush simply does not have Reagan’s primetime television charm, and ability to appeal to Americans in Reagan’s persuasive, winsome manner.

That said, comparisons between the two presidents are often unfair because of vastly divergent circumstances: