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Richard Norton Smith: Reagan's Legacy

Richard Norton Smith, in the Chicago Trib (June 11, 2004):

Of course he was controversial, even polarizing, a chief executive whose policies will be debated for decades to come. But that only proves how much he mattered.

Ronald Reagan was a man of paradoxes: a New Deal liberal turned Goldwater conservative. In a final paradox, this man who has been largely invisible for a decade, and who left the stage of national politics 15 years ago, seems to loom larger with each passing year--and not just in the party he remade in his own image, but across the political spectrum. Just as Tony Blair's New Labor party is a backhanded compliment to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's enterprising revolution in England, so the New Democrats personified by President Bill Clinton testify to the enduring consensus that Reagan bequeathed successors of both parties. Certainly, Clinton's 1996 declaration that the"era of big government is over" would never have been spoken but for Ronald Reagan.

The only professional actor to occupy the Oval Office, Reagan forged an enduring bond with millions of voters who respected the authenticity of his convictions, even when they disagreed with the specifics of his policies. The oldest of America's presidents, Reagan infused the nation's highest office, and the political movement that bears his name, with a very youthful sense of possibility. This was no small achievement. Before Reagan, U.S. conservatives invited caricature as overfed men in batwing collars and little old ladies in tennis shoes who were sorely troubled by the prospect of fluoridated water. Reagan changed all that. His conservatism was not only optimistic, it was futuristic. One sensed that he couldn't wait to get to the 21st Century to see what bold applications of American genius would validate his faith in free markets and untrammeled individualism.

It's not hard to trace the origins of his sunny outlook. Growing up in the Illinois towns of Tampico and Dixon, Reagan imbibed from his mother, Nelle, a fundamentalist belief that everything happened according to God's plan. Nelle Reagan planted in her son a sense of personal destiny that, unleavened by humor, might easily be confused with the messianic. For Reagan, humor offered perspective and relief. It entertained allies as it disarmed opponents. He enjoyed nothing more than telling Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev stories, including one originally told by Gorbachev on himself.

Picture an interminable line outside a Moscow food store, a not unusual occurrence in the arthritic Soviet economy of the 1980s. After patiently enduring hours on his feet, one man snapped."It's all Gorbachev's fault," he declared."I'm going to shoot Gorbachev." With that, he hastened off to the Kremlin. Twenty-four hours pass; the line has barely moved. As the putative assassin reappears to take his place in the line, someone shouts,"Did you shoot Gorbachev?"

"No," came the reply."The line was twice as long."...