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The Big Opportunity Ronald Reagan Missed

The period just after the death of a public figure like Ronald Reagan is the worst time to craft historical assessments of him. We need more time and documentation to do that -- and less partisan cheering.

The recent eulogies and appraisals of the career of Ronald  Reagan were, however, worse than usual. They saluted a mythical President Reagan that we never had. Reagan did not reduce the size of government. His role in ending the Cold War was less important than the Soviet Union's collapse from internal strains. He was a political and temperamental moderate. He was inattentive and passive in cabinet and other meetings and didn't work very hard, though he found time and energy to write a remarkable number of letters that prove he was no dummy.

A historian's complaint, however, is larger than chagrin at the number of myths that have been solemnly served up in recent days, as if they'd never been punctured.

It was often said in the eulogies that Reagan's claim on greatness lay in his indomitable optimism, his ability to lift American spirits and restore the nation's self-confidence. This was indeed one of his talents. Most Americans, from his presidency to last week's tributes, responded positively to Reagan's sunny optimism and the platitudes about"morning in America" on which it rested.

When he began his run for the presidency in the late 1970s  Americans could be said to have been collectively"down" -- guilt-ridden that we had let the Jim Crow system persist into the 1960s, torn by the failure of the Vietnam venture, worried by a stagflationist economy and the Japanese surge against our industries. Reagan's radiant self-confidence and his unreflective belief in America's divine mission as the world's only successful demonstration project was a form of contagious flattery requiring nothing of Americans, and they liked it.

In the short term, these qualities of temperament translated into successful political leadership (election in 1980 against an incumbent president, then re-election in 1984), even if the leader was not in full charge of his own internally divided administration, as many people knew at the time.

But electoral success and high public approval ratings do not qualify Reagan (or any other president) for historical greatness.  Our few great political leaders supply something rare, a sense of how fundamental historical change requires the American nation to alter its perceptions, values and policies. The comfortable old ways will no longer do.

Reagan had an exemplar of this sort of leadership who got his vote four times. Franklin D. Roosevelt twice sensed that the direction of history required that Americans change. In 1933, his New Deal projected a change in the national government's role in regulating and balancing the economy, including ending the nation's undermining of our ecological foundations through misuse of soils, forests and wildlife habitat.

In the late 1930s, Roosevelt gave voice and policy leadership to those who concluded that fascism, with its global ambitions, required a new world role for the United States.  FDR, too, had the gift of conveying optimism and confidence and used those talents to ease the way toward difficult and necessary national readjustments. A sunny temperament, like FDR's and Reagan's, must be connected to a transformative mission matched to history's new directions and demands.

Reagan, when his turn came, cheered people up with the message that all of their old habits remained sound. Endless growth and expanding affluence had been the American formula, and this was what Reagan meant by"freedom." He told Americans that the old perpetual growth-as-usual formula should still be the nation's guide and goal. We know now that this is a recipe for mounting national and global disruptions and instability.

Indeed, it was known when he took office, for two national commissions (the 1972 National Commission on Population and the American Future, and the 1980 report, Global 2000) had arrived at similar conclusions: America had to get off the old unsustainable growth path, stabilize its population, then devise, and export, sustainable energy, agricultural, waste disposal and oceanic protection systems.

Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, understood and embraced these conclusions, but he entirely lacked the skills to deliver the message and point a new way without sounding like a  pessimistic disciplinarian. Reagan had the gifts to rally the nation toward a difficult transition, to stitch it into the American story as a new, exciting phase of our journey and a tomorrow better than yesterday.

He squandered this opportunity and instead led in the opposite direction, toward economic and population expansion unhindered by the sort of environmentalist concerns nurtured in his own Republican Party during and for a few years after the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1908).

Greatness thus slipped past Reagan, as he chose to devote his temperamental and communicative gifts to the shrinking of the non-military role of government, a task which he was in the end too moderate and genial to pursue to decisive success. If in our unfolding history the earth continues to warm and the oceans rise, his chosen priorities will suggest a ranking well below great.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.