Ronald Reagan's Greatest Role: Himself

He was a tonic for his times, the pick-me-up President who restored America's confidence. Even in death, he's larger than life

By Lee Walczak

Former President Ronald Wilson Reagan, who died on June 5 at the age of 93 in California, was such a gigantic figure that his myth and reality intertwine in the strands of legend. He was, of course, a man of giant contradictions. He preached limited government, but expanded it via a massive defense buildup. He vowed to erase deficits, but left rivers of red ink for his successors to clean up. He talked like an unyielding partisan, but cheerfully accepted half-a-loaf compromises from Congress.

Most important, Reagan had a worldview shaped by implacable hostility to Marxist-Leninist ideology -- yet he reached out to Russian leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to make deep reductions in nuclear arsenals and pave the way for the Cold War's end.

As governor of California and later, as U.S. President, Reagan made tax cutting a uniting theology for an emerging, Sun Belt-tinged Republican Party. He aggressively sought to export democratic values around the world -- not always successfully. Most of all, he was a restorative President, a kind of national antidote to the dour Jimmy Carter-era -- to gas-lines, Americans held hostage, and laments about a national "malaise."

GAINS AND LOSSES.

  Springing from a socially libertarian Hollywood, Reagan replaced Carter's pinched Baptist moralizing with boundless, almost hedonistic, California optimism. In so doing, he was rejecting an entire school of thinking that spawned treatises on the "era of limits" and the growth-limitation movement. The notion of boundaries on America's surging energy was alien to Reagan. Simply put, he was a believer in U.S. exceptionalism, and he always portrayed the nation as an instrument of manifest destiny -- "a shining city on a hill."

His actor's sense of timing was impeccable, of course. After the sour stretch of the Seventies, a time of political scandal, resource shortages, and stagflation, Americans were ready to let it rip again in 1980. The boom times that followed perfectly meshed with Reagan's philosophy, which aimed to unchain business from the shackles of government regulation and to boost individuals' incomes with some hefty tax-refund checks. Prosperity didn't just trickle down as a result of these incentives. It became a torrent.

Of course, the old Tinseltown magic worked for only a while. Eventually, lax regulatory oversight gave way to real estate bubbles, massive tax avoidance, and the savings-and-loan meltdown. The enshrinement of across-the-board tax cuts as a kind of national happy pill helped sap any will Congress might have to restrain federal spending. As for American exceptionalism, it turns out that this expansive notion, too, may have its limits.

HOLLYWOOD ENDING.

  Hubris led the Reaganauts into the debilitating Iran-Contra scandal that clouded the Californian's second term. And today, a Reaganesque foreign policy that seeks to transplant American values in barren foreign soil is dividing the country and the world as triumphalist bravado in Iraq gives way to sobering reality.

But let's not ruin the movie with a few rips in the dogged-eared script. Today, through the haze of nostalgia, the epic Reagan Era seems like a great, shining moment for America. It was a time when momentous events became commonplace, and our President became larger than life again, like Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy.

The cowboy came to town, cleaned up Dodge City, scattered the outlaws, blew the smoke off his pistol, kissed the girl, and rode away into the sunset. That's the way the movie ends in my mind. And that's the way it ought to be left.

Washington Bureau Chief Walczak covered the Reagan White House for BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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