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How Reagan Invented the 1980s

Historians like to think that nothing surprises us. Still, who would have predicted the Sunday New York Times’s front page declaration that Ronald Reagan “managed to project the optimism of [Franklin] Roosevelt, the faith in small-town America of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the vigor of John F. Kennedy”? This same paper procalimed twenty-one years ago that “The stench of failure hangs over Ronald Reagan’s White House,” and, like much of the media, continually caricatured Reagan as a cross between Mr. Magoo and Scrooge. Amid all the tributes hailing Reagan as a “leader,” an “icon,” a “hero,” an “American original,” as we watch 24 hour-news coverage of a carefully orchestrated week of transcontinental mourning, we are witnessing the canonization of an American secular saint.

In the United States the only statesmen seem to be dead politicians–but the contrast between the way reporters discussed Ronald Reagan in his lifetime and upon his death is striking. Ronald Reagan was a polarizing figure – that was one of his strengths. An ideologue committed to fighting Communism, shrinking big government, and cutting taxes, he challenged Americans to revolutionize their attitudes toward their government, their country and themselves. In fact, Reagan’s program generated tremendous controversy and wavering popularity ratings. In 1983, the historian Henry Steele Commager branded Reagan’s now legendary “evil empire” speech facing down the Soviet Union “the worst presidential speech in American history.” On Sunday, ex-President Bill Clinton eulogized Reagan “for keeping America at the forefront of the fight for freedom for people everywhere." Yet in 1992, then-Governor Clinton repeatedly denounced “The Reagan-Bush years” for ushering “in a gilded age of greed, selfishness, irresponsibility, excess, and neglect.”

With the same affability that softened his ideological edge, with the self-assurance of old age, Reagan deflected the criticism. He was who he was, Canada’s Brian Mulroney later recalled. Unlike many younger, thin-skinned leaders, Reagan was not a work in progress. The charming showman enjoyed being self-deprecating. When opponents attacked the Air Force’s costly B-1 bomber, he quipped: “How did I know it was an airplane? I thought it was vitamins for the troops.” It takes a lively mind to come up with the quip; a confident psyche to deliver it.

Still, when Reagan retired, his legacy looked cloudy. Reagan’s vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, paraded as the “real” Ronald Reagan – a rooted, churchgoing Yale-educated WASP not an arriviste Hollywood celebrity; a war hero not a celluloid soldier; a businessman not an actor; the long-married head of a warm, famously cohesive family not the once-divorced head of a feuding, infamously dysfunctional crew. Yet while embracing Reagan’s mantle, Bush disdained Reaganism. President Bush would deemphasize rhetoric, ideology, and visionary leadership. Unlike his predecessor who in 1980 conjured up a mandate, Bush would shrink from the term. “Well, I don’t know whether I want to use the word mandate,” Bush would say, the day after being elected. One Bush aide lamented that “the movie actor’s White House was the one that was hospitable to new ideas. Not the Yalie’s.”

Ironically, Reagan’s reputation revived thanks to a Democrat, Bill Clinton. Liberals stopped grousing about “peace and prosperity” as an Administration’s rationale when it became the Democratic mantra. Many fair-minded people recognized that, if presidents deserve credit for economic success, both Reagan and Clinton deserved some credit for this maturing-baby-boomers-reaching-their-earnings-potential boom. Prosperity reduced the deficit, minimizing one of Reagan’s great failures. Meanwhile, with Bill Clinton and Dick Morris triangulating, the first Democratic President after the Reagan Revolution ran for reelection declaring “the era of big government is over.”

Clinton’s scandals also boosted Reagan’s reputation. Reagan, the old-fashioned, courtly president who never even removed his suit jacket in the Oval Office, appeared downright saintly compared to Clinton, the undisciplined, perennial adolescent. And Reagan’s writings helped. Historians researching the Presidential Handwriting Files, the Speech Files, and the White House telephone records at the Reagan Presidential Library discovered an engaged, supple intelligence, happily crossing swords with hostile correspondents, editing his speeches, arm-twisting legislators. Publication of his many radio talks from the 1970s, and his letters from the 1980s, illustrated Reagan’s mastery of language and the depth of his convictions. His 1994 farewell letter, acknowledging his Alzheimer’s disease, tailored the Marlboro Man to the Age of Oprah. As Reagan lost his memory, Americans’ memories of him softened. By 2003, when a CBS mini-series treated the Reagan marriage in typically melodramatic Hollywood terms, the script violated the de-militarized zone that now enveloped this ailing hero and his loyal wife Nancy, enjoying her own extreme image makeover thanks to the grace with which she ministered to her husband.

President George W. Bush’s adherence to the Reaganite governing template kept the Reagan era alive. Ronald Reagan taught Presidents Clinton and Bush the importance of big picture governing, of integrating cultural and political leadership, of shaping a transcendent narrative that could insulate the president from the inevitable missteps – and even larger scandals and errors. One cannot understand how Bill Clinton survived the Monica Lewinsky scandal, how George W. Bush thrived after September 11, without first understanding Ronald Reagan’s model of presidential leadership.

Gradually, Reagan’s ranking rose in surveys of historians, as well as national polls. Even the great liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., recently grouped Reagan with Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt as “forceful and persuasive presidents” who “impose[d] their own priorities on the country,” despite “the absence of first-order crisis.”

Reagan’s reputation will continue to fluctuate as history imposes new standards. After September 11, Ronald Reagan’s passivity when Hezbollah terrorists murdered hundreds of marines in Lebanon, and his hamhanded Iran-contra scheme, emerged as key moments in the march of presidential folly amid Islamic terrorism. Today, even as the budget deficit he left behind shrank, the moral deficit Reagan bequeathed grows, exemplified by the epidemic of consumerist selfishness. Still, Reagan’s faults will always be balanced by the Cold War victory he helped facilitate, the prosperity he nurtured, and the Morning in America, the surge in confidence, he delivered.

When Ronald Reagan was sworn in as governor of California, he said, “For many years now, you and I have been shushed like children and told there are no simple answers to complex problems which are beyond our comprehension. Well, the truth is, there are simple answers – but there are no easy ones.” Ronald Reagan was a simple man, not a simpleton. He was an ideologue not a fanatic, a traditionalist not an antiquarian. The eulogizing will overreach, but in praising Reagan, many Americans will be doing what he inspired many to do in the 1980s, sing a song of freedom conjuring up the shining “city set upon a hill” illuminating his and their noblest visions.