It’s a week late to be writing about Ronald Reagan, except controversy continues to swirl around the late president after the commemoration of his 100th birthday.
Political conservatives accuse liberals and Democrats of trying to hijack his legacy; some resent President Barack Obama for citing him as a leadership model. The other side says today’s political right is anathema to the pragmatic moderation that was Reaganism’s hallmark.
The Gipper would be bemused.
Some of those same liberals who today talk of Reagan’s virtues were contemptuous a quarter-century ago. The presidential adviser Clark Clifford’s characterization of him as an “amiable dunce” was widely accepted in Democratic circles.
It’s remembered that Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a liberal Democrat, had a social relationship of sorts. That was after they fought, at times bitterly, over issues.
Anyone who doubts the 40th president’s devotion to conservative principles, after his early days as New Deal Democrat, should read his 1964 endorsement of the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, a text that in Reagan circles is still referred to as “The Speech.” He railed against Medicare, called for a voluntary Social Security system and accused the Democrats of “appeasement” in dealing with Communists.
He genuinely believed taxes should be lower, government should spend and regulate less and the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” that should be defeated. Reagan loved to read and clip the periodical Human Events, a bible of the far right.
Yet conservatives today romanticize Reagan’s fervor. As governor and president he was a pragmatist. The critics of Obama’s citations today should remember Reagan often invoked the first president he voted for: Franklin D. Roosevelt. In “The Speech,” Reagan even borrowed a phrase from his Democratic predecessor, saying “you and I have a rendezvous with destiny.”
He thought tax rates were too high. He also increased taxes as governor of California and three times as president after his initial big tax cuts. He helped pass a sweeping overhaul of the tax code in 1986 that lowered rates and was paid for with a huge increase in corporate levies.
In Berlin, he demanded that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall,” and engaged in massive defense spending to counter the Russians. In his second term, brushing aside conservative objections, he established a close relationship with Gorbachev.
Always a big delegator, he usually sided with pragmatists in selecting top advisers. To run his White House, he shunned a staunch conservative aide, Ed Meese, and relied instead on Jim Baker and Mike Deaver. Baker, the most effective chief of staff in the modern presidency, had been the campaign chairman for George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s main rival in 1980. On foreign policy he sided with Secretary of State George Shultz over his longtime California confidant, William Clark, a hardliner. After the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal, he turned to Howard Baker, the moderate former Senate Republican leader, to lead the White House out of its worst crisis.
There were some sad chapters in the Reagan era. Some of his policies were insensitive toward minorities, especially African Americans.
In an interview on Feb. 2, 1984, the president assailed Tip O’Neill’s call for a withdrawal of beleaguered U.S. Marines in Lebanon. The speaker “may be ready for surrender, but I’m not,” Reagan bragged. Five days later, he began withdrawing the Marines, who were gone by the end of the month.
Reaganites revel in the “economic miracle” they say his tax cuts produced. Actually, the economy under a successor, President Bill Clinton, who initiated a tax increase, grew a little faster and created more jobs. Federal spending as a percentage of the economy didn’t go down in the Reagan years.
Reagan certainly hastened the demise of the Soviet Union with his military buildup and tough posture. Yet conservatives are loath to credit Harry Truman, who devised the original policy of containment, or Dwight Eisenhower, or John F. Kennedy, who avoided a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
There were impressive Reagan achievements, none greater than his success in inspiring a dispirited public with his can-do optimism, proving anew that government can work. When he assumed office, the U.S. political system was considered dysfunctional.
Model for Obama
He also showed the strength of a politician who is personally secure -- witness his choice of the Bakers. As Obama studies the Reagan leadership model, reading Lou Cannon’s marvelous biography, he should consider his own willingness to reach outside familiar circles.
I interviewed Reagan more than a dozen times. During the 1980 campaign, when I worked for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington bureau and editorial page, deeply suspicious of each other, landed a joint interview with the president. When the campaign scheduled it for early April we had to decline; I was getting married that weekend.
It was rescheduled. The night before, working on questions with the editorial-page writer, who didn’t know Reagan, I explained how he was different than most candidates who had a view on every traveling reporter; by contrast, Reagan really only knew Cannon and a few TV network correspondents. To my colleague’s surprise, I said Reagan had no idea who I was.
‘Just Got Married’
On a flight to Tennessee the next day, we were ushered up to the front section. “I’m not going to do this interview,” Reagan exclaimed. “Why?” I asked, incredulously. “Nancy and I were talking last night and looked at my schedule and saw an interview with Al Hunt. I said, ‘he just got married and he shouldn’t be out here running around; he should be home with Judy.’”
Everyone laughed, we did the interview and it ran as a long Q&A on the editorial page. A little later I was back covering Reagan and he approached some of us milling around an airport tarmac. I greeted him warmly. He thanked me for my support, assuming I was a local politician.
Bruised feelings aside, I initially thought this incident reflected negatively on the Gipper. Later, I realized it was just the opposite; he knew what he had to know, when he had to know it.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)