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Reagan His Place In History

June 2024
11min read

Six Aspects Of The Man—Three Political, Three Personal—Hint At How Posterity Will View Him

Contemporary judgments of presidents are notoriously erratic. Consider the four who decorate Mount Rushmore, the stony seal of posterity’s approval. Although Washington retired with almost universally good reviews, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson did say he had “debauched” the nation. Jefferson left the White House with the joy of an escaping prisoner and a stress-induced migraine condition. The Senate was so angry with Theodore Roosevelt in his last days in office that it refused to accept his communications. Lincoln, who tops every historian’s rating of Presidents, was murdered.

When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he truly retired, intending no Nixonian or Carteresque codas, and the onset of Alzheimer’s was soon setting his agenda in any case. Journalists and historians could thus get an early start on their posthumous shiftings. But their work will go on for years. The talented Edmund Morris was given a clean shot at writing the definitive early account, like John Marshall’s biography of Washington (or Edwin O’Connor’s fictional portrait of James Michael Curley), but Morris produced such an eccentric work that even that task will have to be done, and redone.

Whatever the writers finally come up with, all their labors, like all the events of their subject’s career, will be distilled by the national memory into two or three facts or phrases, maybe only one. My childhood history of the Presidents, which had to find something important and moderately good to say about every Chief Executive, could at least say of Millard Fillmore that he sent Commodore Perry to Japan.

Here is a preliminary list of six aspects of Ronald Reagan—three personal, three political—from which those in the year 2075 may make their selection.

Like notable predecessors—Jefferson, FDR—Reagan had an optimistic view of things. Also like them, he had demons and enemies. But he was serenely confident that he would prevail. His political optimism came from a buoyant temperament. The command performance for his personality was the moment when, at the age of 70, one of John Hinckley’s bullets lodged an inch from his heart. He spent his time, before and after the operation that saved his life, cracking jokes almost as old as himself. We often use military metaphors to describe normal political controversy—for instance, a “barrage” of criticism. Ronald Reagan reacted to actual gunfire with better humor than many politicians do to bad headlines.

He reacted to gunfire with better humor than many politicians do to bad press.

In normal circumstances, Reagan’s favorite story about his sunny worldview concerned two boys who were told to clean out a stable. The task proved so Augean that one of them gave up. The other kept going. With so much excrement, he reasoned, there had to be a pony in there somewhere.

That story conveyed a truth about Reagan’s optimism: It was willed, sometimes contrary to all reason. Another story, which he told on the opening pages of his first memoir, the 1965 Where’s the Rest of Me?, supplies the psychological background of his determined hopefulness. Reagan describes finding his father, Jack, a genial, but alcoholic, shoe salesman, collapsed on the front porch one night after a binge. The scene was pure Frank Capra, down to the weather conditions: Jack Reagan’s “hair [was] soaked with melting snow.” As in some Frank Capra movies, there was also a dark subtext beneath a sentimental gloss. Ronald remembered helping his father, pityingly, to bed: “I could feel no resentment.” If he couldn’t feel any, why does he mention it? Any drunk’s child feels a host of negative emotions: resentment, anger, betrayal. Each child then deals with them in his own way. Ronald Reagan’s way was to dismiss his pain and to focus on the bright side: “In a few days” his father “was the bluff, hearty man I knew and loved.” In later life, Reagan would blot out both real problems and false obstacles, as well as bullets.

The black velvet backdrop behind his cheerfulness explains a second salient trait of Reagan’s: his coldness. Yes, he had a funny story for everyone, including Tip O’Neill and Mikhail Gorbachev, and he laughed at other people’s funny stories, not just his own. But behind the bonhomie, there was nothing accessible. “Even as a teenager,” wrote Edmund Morris, “he had taken no personal interest in people. They were, and remained, a faceless audience to his perpetual performance.” Certainly Morris felt faceless in Reagan’s presence, which seems to have driven the biographer to distraction. But he was not the only one. People who worked with Reagan closely for years felt they never penetrated. According to his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, White House staffers made jokes of his elusiveness: “Who was that masked man?”

Reagan’s coldness allowed him to be stubborn. He used all the resources of public relations, from marks on the floor to theme-of-the-day spin control to movie-star looks, to make his case. But after he had done all that he could do, he did not care what people thought of him. He had his message; when he became President, he had his programs; that was that. He often settled for less than he wanted, but he never stopped wanting it. His stubbornness helped him reach the White House despite one of the more discouraging pre-victory political records. Some politicians have won second contests after previously losing runs for the Presidency: Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon. Some have won, after one failed attempt to secure their party’s nomination: James Monroe, George H. W. Bush. Reagan failed twice to get the Republican nomination—in 1968 and 1976—before lightning struck. Repeat losers, from Henry Clay to Bob Dole, usually go on losing. Only Reagan broke the pattern.

Reagan’s third important personal trait was simplicity. The literature of management is filled with variations on the polarity between big-picture men and detail men; in the realm of philosophy, Isaiah Berlin taught us to think of hedgehogs (the thinkers who see in the universe one big thing) and foxes (the thinkers who see multiplicity). The characteristic mistake of bigpicture hedgehogs is to ignore details that are in fact crucial; the characteristic mistake of detail foxes is to assume that hedgehogs see nothing at all. John Quincy Adams, the first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard, called Andrew Jackson a “barbarian” who “hardly could spell his own name” this was five years after Jackson had cleaned Adams’s clock in the election of 1828.

Tip O’Neill, no Boylston Professor of Rhetoric but a Massachusetts politician, like Adams, said Reagan knew “less than any president I’ve ever known” (O’Neill, like Adams, also had his clock cleaned by his ignoramus enemy). Reagan indeed was about as far over in the direction of the big picture and hedgehog as it is possible to be. In his book The Presidential Difference, the political scientist Fred I. Greenstein made a useful movie-industry analogy to Reagan’s intellectual and management style. Reagan obviously was the star of his own administration, but he was also its producer. The writing, even the directing, could always be left to someone else. He was responsible for Reaganism.

What was that? The most concentrated (Reaganesque?) summary of its leading heads was made by the journalist R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.: “The Evil Empire; cut taxes; the pieties.” The economist Milton Friedman daydreams about an income tax return so simple it could be printed on a postcard. Reaganism could be jotted down on the back of a business card.

What fell off the card, Reagan believed, could safely be ignored. Pat Buchanan, another speechwriter, remembered sitting in on a cabinet-level debate between Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Agriculture John Block on grain exports. While it raged, Reagan reached for a bowl of jellybeans, his favorite snack food, and began picking out his favorite colors. “My God,” Buchanan thought, “what in heaven’s name is with this guy?” Reagan, who caught Buchanan’s eye, winked. Buchanan interpreted the wink to mean: “They’re having an argument here, and I’m not getting into it.” Maybe that is what the wink meant. Or maybe—the coldness kicking in—it was Reagan’s way of averting an intrusive gaze. In either case, Mr. Shultz and Mr. Block were not attended to. That was safe enough when the subject was grain exports; less safe when it was the money shuffling of Lt. Col. Oliver North.

On the issues that constituted Reaganism, Reagan batted two for three. It became the fashion, after their collapse, to dismiss Communism and the Soviet Union as threats. It is easy to be wise after the fact. In the late seventies, Cuban soldiers patrolled the former Portuguese empire in Africa. The Soviets had acquired two new client states in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua and Grenada, and had invaded Afghanistan. Western Europe was rocked by a pro-Communist peace movement, terrified by the introduction of Soviet and American intermediate-range missiles on European soil.

Reagan’s distrust of Communism was deep and longstanding. As a president of the Screen Actors Guild, he had seen Communist attempts to take over Hollywood crafts unions; when the guild’s position on these turf wars shifted from neutral to anti-Communist, Reagan got an anonymous phone call on a movie set threatening that his face would be “fix[ed].” Early in the fifties, he read Witness, by the former Communist spy Whittaker Chambers. Witness was more than an espionage memoir; in one passage, Chambers recalled that the delicate folds of his baby daughter’s ears persuaded him that the universe was divinely designed and that scientific socialism was false. Three decades later, Reagan cited the passage on the baby’s ear to White House speechwriter Tony Dolan. Reagan was not well read, but what he read lodged in his mind.

Because of his optimism, he never adopted the defensive power-sharing strategy of longtime anti-Communists like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. He thought Communism was bad, and he thought it was doomed. When he became President, he confidently declared that freedom and the West would “transcend” Communism, that it would end “on the ash-heap of history,” that the Berlin Wall should be torn down.

The steps he took to bring this about included rolling back Communist gains at the margins, invading Grenada, supporting a counterrevolution in Nicaragua, and sending Stinger missiles to the Afghan resistance. (As in all wars, there were unintended consequences, as the Taliban and Osama bin Laden demonstrate.) He announced that he would take advantage of America’s lead in high tech by producing a missile defense system. Critics derided the Strategic Defense Initiative as a fantasy from Star Wars; Reagan embraced the pop-culture reference. He never deployed the system, and tests of its effectiveness continue to this day, as do arguments over the results. But the threat worried the Soviets; Gorbachev’s foreign minister, Aleksandr Bessmertnykh, told a 1993 conference of Cold Warriors at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs that SDI caused a tug of war inside the Soviet bureaucracy that was reflected in the divided purposes of the Gorbachev regime. Former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci said at the same press conference that he “never believed” in SDI, and his skepticism may prove to be justified. On the other hand, the Cold War postmortem at which Bessmertnykh and Carlucci spoke was hosted by the victors, in Princeton, New Jersey, not Leningrad.

No one thing wins a war by itself. But Reagan’s appearance at the end of the Cold War was crucial. When he came into office, the Soviet Union was an aggressive hard-line state; when he left, it was a reforming, improvising one partly in response to his pressures. Less than a year after he retired, the Berlin Wall was torn down; two years after that, the Soviet Union was no more. It is hard to think of a comparably rapid collapse of a major power without major bloodletting. Woodrow Wilson helped beat the Central Powers in World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt played a far larger role in beating the Axis in World War II. World War III—the Cold War—was less cataclysmic but longer, and the role of the United States was even more central. Ronald Reagan helped guarantee an American victory, without fighting a Second Battle of the Marne or a D-Day.

When Reagan came into office, the American economy seemed as weak as the Yeltsin-era Russian army. The oil shock of the early seventies had hit it hard, and a combination of high inflation and high unemployment known as “stagflation”—which the reigning economists’ paradigm of the Phillips curve declared to be impossible—seemed impervious to the best efforts of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter to massage it.

Politicians often preside over transformations they deplore.

Reagan’s remedy was as theological as the passage on the baby’s ear. A school of economists, called “supply-siders,” had studied the economic impact of tax rates (Robert Mundell, the school’s founder, was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1999). They too had a curve, shaped like a croquet wicket and named after one of their number, Arthur Laffer, which they said showed the diminishing returns of revenue that resulted from ever-higher rates. If you cut tax rates, they argued, the economy would be stimulated, and the federal government would collect more money in tax revenues. Making use of a post-shooting wave of good feeling, Reagan was able to persuade Congress to implement something like their program.

In the event, the Laffer curve, like the Phillips curve, had some kinks in it. The great tax-rate cut was followed by two short, sharp recessions, one at the beginning of Reagan’s first term, the other at the end of George H. W. Bush’s only one. Both Bush and then Bill Clinton repudiated supply-side doctrine, though they did not in fact raise tax rates that much. The deficit, contrary to predictions, rose alarmingly, until the late nineties, when politicians began talking of surplus.

Still, the eighties and nineties were economically vastly different from the seventies. Americans worried less about OPEC or the potency of Asian models of capitalism and profited from their own. Success has many fathers. The Federal Reserve, which always goes its own way, deserves credit. So, more recently, does the computer economy, which was a spinoff of high-tech military spending. But Reagan was on the bridge when the twenty-year boom began.

On the third item of his agenda, “the pieties,” more commonly known as the social issues, Reagan was completely defeated. After signing an expansive abortion-rights bill as governor of California, Reagan came to oppose the practice. When he was elected President, abortion opponents spoke hopefully of a constitutional amendment returning jurisdiction on abortion to the states or banning abortion outright or of a congressional act (per Article III, Section 2) removing the issue from the sway of the courts. Nothing happened. When Reagan addressed audiences of gun owners as a fellow NRA member, they helped him in Republican primaries. Gun-control supporters made little progress during his administration, but recently they have made lots, aided in no small part by the crippled presence of former press secretary James Brady, shot by one of John Hinckley’s bullets. Sex continues to rock and roll through popular entertainment and, not so very long ago, even the Oval Office. Come to think of it, Reagan was the first divorced man to be elected President.

In 1979 the Washington political operative Paul Weyrich helped the Reverend Jerry Falwell found the Moral Majority, the organization’s name confidently assuming that there was such a thing, as Weyrich and Falwell defined it. In 1999 Weyrich gloomily announced that religious and social conservatives should retreat to their families and communities since the political and cultural situation was hopeless.

More objective observers like the political scientist Mark Lilla and the journalist David Frum (author of How We Got Here: The 70’s—The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—for Better or Worse) have amplified on Weyrich’s assessment, arguing that conservative politics and social liberalism are necessarily linked in the postmodern era. Necessity is what we make of it, but they are certainly linked in contemporary practice, and nothing Reagan professed to believe altered that.

Perhaps the pieties fell victim to simplicity. It may be that a hedgehog’s agenda maxes out at two big ideas. Abortion opponents were told during the early Reagan years to wait patiently while Communism and high tax rates were attended to; their turn would come. It never did.

Great generals and politicians often preside over social transformations they deplore. Washington’s Farewell Address deplores the party spirit, yet partisan politics became an unshakable aspect of American life in his administration. Thomas Jefferson was the harbinger of the new era, yet as Henry Adams argued in four stout volumes, that era was not the republican, country party ideal of Jefferson’s youth. If posterity accords Reagan some measure of their success—a world war and a twenty-year boom—it will also accord him their failure.

Reagan’s Presidency came at the end of the twentieth century—the actual one, not the calendrical one. The twentieth century, as many historians have noted, was a short century, running from 1914 to 1991. It was also an evil century, defined by tyranny and bloodshed. The United States came through it less badly scarred than any other major power and than many small ones. Ronald Reagan, who was born in 1911, before the Evil Century began, lived to see and understand its end—which he, as much as anyone else, assured would be relatively successful. Mount Rushmore is full, and that kind of pantheon should probably be reserved for those who speak to America’s spirit (then what’s TR doing there?). But when historians and children have to think of Ronald Reagan at the end of the twenty-first century, they won’t have to scratch around for some Commodore Perry.

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