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Next month it will be 10 years since Ronald Reagan died at age 93. Next fall it will be 20 years since he withdrew from public view by releasing his handwritten letter announcing he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and 30 years since he was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote, carrying 49 of 50 states — a political feat no one has come close to since. And it will be 50 years since his late October telecast for Barry Goldwater made him a national political figure.
Ronald Reagan had been in public view for more than half a century, longer than any other president — for nearly three decades as an actor and three more as a prominent national politician. Would-be presidential candidates inevitably identify themselves as Reagan conservatives. Republicans at all levels have championed tax cuts, one of Reagan’s successes, even though high-end tax rates are much lower these days than when Reagan became president. They have invoked him as one who would not compromise on principle, though many of his achievements were compromises. Rand Paul has declared his generally non-interventionist foreign policy as Reaganesque, though Reagan as candidate and president pursued an active and sometimes-interventionist American role in the world. Even Barack Obama has cited him as an example of the kind of consequential president he hoped to be.
That so many people feel entitled to say they’re following Reagan’s example shows how ambiguous and hazily defined that example is. In many ways Ronald Reagan remains mysterious, a mythic figure at odds with his actual record and actions. “He wasn’t a complicated man,” Nancy Reagan has stated. “He was a private man, but he wasn’t a complicated one.” A private man, despite nearly six decades in the limelight. A man who left a large imprint on history, who spoke and wrote about public affairs and political issues for years even before he became a politician, but one who still eludes definition. A congenial man who made little trouble for others on the movie set or in executive offices, but whose record shows a steely determination and steady set of purposes that become apparent only when considered in full.
What can a look back over the decades tell us about Reagan that wasn’t known, or was known only to a few, for those many years?
One thing is that he was ambitious, from childhood on, to be a person of importance in the world. He painted his boyhood as idyllic, but the tax records in Dixon, Ill., show that his parents moved from one house to another, each one worth less than the one before. As a boy he listened at night to the clear-channel Chicago radio stations, broadcasting 100 miles straight east, which were the great innovators of the new mass medium — and dreamed of a media career. His parents had not graduated from high school, but he did and then, unusual for one in his circumstances, went on to Eureka College, where he had good grades and appeared in 12 plays in four years. Graduating in the Depression year of 1932, when unemployment was 25 percent, he found jobs as a radio announcer in Iowa (after failing to get one in Chicago), then arranged an expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles (supposedly to cover the Cubs’ spring training), wangled a screen test and became a movie actor at a princely $200 a week — more than $3,000 in today’s dollars.
From his Des Moines radio station he had a chance to see Franklin Roosevelt ride by in his motorcade. FDR was his political hero, for whom he voted four times. As his movie career thrived, he became a union leader in the Screen Actors Guild and an active Democrat, emceeing Harry Truman’s final 1948 campaign rally in the Hollywood Bowl.
Through all this he seems to have been self-directed and self-sufficient. Like the two other most successful presidents of his lifetime, Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, he had a dazzling smile and many friendly acquaintances, but no really close friends, no confidants with whom he shared all his hopes and ambitions. None of these three men seems to have shared all his thoughts with anyone, not even their wives (and all three had marital crises). For FDR, Eleanor was one of many useful aides whose advice could be pigeonholed, while Ike’s Mamie was, as she said, the one who made the pork chops while Ike made the military and political decisions. Reagan’s first wife, Jane Wyman, said he bored her by talking politics constantly and she insisted on a divorce. With Nancy he formed a loving partnership, and she tried to protect him against disloyal or incompetent staffers. But it seems unlikely he filled her in on his thinking on issues where she seemed likely to disagree.
The second thing that was not generally understood about Ronald Reagan during his active years and is not fully appreciated today is that he was something of an intellectual, an autodidact who read constantly and widely about politics, public policy and foreign affairs. Over the years he developed well-informed opinions based on a wide range of knowledge. It would not be in his interest as a movie star to let the fan magazines know that he was reading Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 attack on socialism, The Road to Serfdom, though the fact that he did may help explain his later move from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican.
His first years of professional success were in universal media — radio, movies, television — that sought to appeal to everyone, to identify their heroes and heroines as ordinary Americans with solid conventional values. At their best they conveyed an idea of what it meant to be an American. Their spirit was very much in accord with Reagan’s own values, including a friendly acceptance of Jews, blacks and homosexuals that seems unremarkable today but was unusual then. Politically Reagan also remained in line with the large American public. As his views on domestic policy changed, he quietly voted twice for Eisenhower in the 1950s. Over his lifetime, he voted for more winning presidential candidates and a higher percentage of winning presidential candidates than any other American president.
Reagan’s political switch was motivated in part by irritation over the unfairness of the high income tax rates that were imposed during World War II and continued through the Eisenhower years, plus the lack of the income-averaging provisions added later. He found most of his income taxed away at a time when he knew, as he was growing older, that his earnings as an actor were likely to decline. And his ambition to make a mark seems to have propelled him into converting his interest in politics to a more active role after watching in 1960 the election of a president six years younger than himself. (Reagan in 1980 was the only man elected president older than the man elected 20 years before.) His initial emergence into national politics, a half-hour after-dinner speech televised nationally on Oct. 27, 1964, was more angry in tone and substance than most of his later political rhetoric; it may have reflected a frustration at the state of his career as well as the state of the nation. It was broadcast over the objections of Goldwater’s campaign manager; Reagan parried them by saying he’d stay off the air if Goldwater disapproved after reading the speech, presumably confident that the not overly hardworking nominee wouldn’t bother.
That speech failed to help Goldwater, but it led to Reagan’s 1966 candidacy for governor of California, which had just passed New York to become the nation’s most populous state. He campaigned as a citizen-politician, downplaying as he had as an actor his immersion in political issues. He campaigned as a champion of the traditional values celebrated in the universal media of radio, movies and television and against the violent response — in the Berkeley student rebellion, the riots in Watts — of the intended beneficiaries of the liberal policies of the time. His landslide victory made him the outstanding national conservative Republican and sparked a brief presidential candidacy at the 1968 Republican National Convention.
Reagan’s reputation as a conservative Republican obscures the third thing still not generally understood about him: the continuity of his views on many, though not all, important public policies over the years. He liked to say that he did not leave the Democratic Party, but that it left him, and there is some basis for saying that. On domestic issues, on taxing and spending, on welfare and anti-poverty programs, he clearly changed his views between his appearance for Truman at the Hollywood Bowl and his speech for Goldwater on national TV. Yet on other issues he steered a steady course. He was always a free trader, not a protectionist. It was the position of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, but by the time he became president it had been abandoned by most Democrats because of pressure from trade unions. His tolerance for others, rooted in his parents’ Catholic-Protestant marriage and their insistence of equal treatment of blacks, made him not just a supporter but a champion of immigration, and he gladly signed the immigration act of 1986 that many Republicans today bitterly denounce. And as a candidate Reagan fell back on proven good lines. In February 1980 he took the lead in the New Hampshire primary after he angrily said, “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green” — a line echoing a Spencer Tracy speech in the 1948 movie “State of the Union.” “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” he asked at the end of his one debate with Jimmy Carter in October — a line echoing a Franklin Roosevelt radio fireside chat in 1934.
Most important, on foreign policy there is a distinct continuity between the policy Franklin Roosevelt came to support in the late 1930s and Ronald Reagan advanced successfully in the 1980s. Reagan, like Roosevelt and Eisenhower, saw the United States as having a duty to oppose tyranny and totalitarianism in the world. That did not mean going to war on every possible occasion. Roosevelt aided the British against Hitler in 1940 and 1941, but did not ask Congress for a declaration of war until Pearl Harbor was attacked. Eisenhower made a compromise peace in Korea and declined to intervene in Vietnam. But both built alliances to fight or deter tyrannical aggression and to advance, as far as they believed they prudently could, the causes of freedom and democracy around the world.
On this fundamental issue Reagan was correct in saying that the Democratic Party changed course while he stayed true to Roosevelt’s vision. For half a century from 1917, when Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into World War I, the Democrats were the party more likely to back a strong military and to support military intervention. In the late 1960s, as America seemed mired down in Vietnam, the Democrats became the more dovish and isolationist party they are today. In his foreign policy statements as governor and member of a national intelligence commission Reagan maintained his views. In his radio scripts, written between 1975 and 1979 in his own neat hand with few deletions and insertions, Reagan returned again and again to foreign policy, to the need for a stronger defense, to the importance of pushing back against tyranny and helping freedom prevail. These scripts, written while he was preparing to run for president and thus liable to be vetted by opponents, show a command of detail and a persistence of purpose that he brought to the White House and that enabled him to bring about the end of the empire he was unafraid to declare evil.
There is another side of Reagan’s foreign policy that is underappreciated. As Paul Lettow shows in his book Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish nuclear weapons, Reagan was horrified by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and by the potential for immense human destruction of nuclear bombs. He rejected the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction and hated the idea that a president could issue an order resulting in thousands or millions of deaths. On his last day in office he was relieved to give up the card that, inserted in a machine, would send missiles to kill millions. His political adversaries lampooned him as a bomb-thrower and argued that his Strategic Defense Initiative — “Star Wars” weapons that could destroy nuclear missiles before they detonated — would dangerously upset the nuclear balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. SDI was far from fully developed in the Reagan years. But the threat of a technological advance, plus his vast increases in defense spending that the Soviets could not match, played a key role in the downfall of the Soviet Union. So did Reagan’s dogged success in persuading the European allies to install Pershing medium-range missiles despite mass “peace” rallies. Reagan did not achieve the agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons he sought at the 1986 Reykjavik summit because he refused Mikhail Gorbachev’s demand that he give up SDI. But Reagan’s success in ending the Cold War did vastly reduce the risk of nuclear conflagration.
The fourth thing about Reagan that is underappreciated today, not least by many Republicans who claim to be following his example, is that he was pragmatic and prudent in advancing his major ideas. As governor he agreed to a tax increase and made concessions in order to secure a successful welfare program. He signed, much to his later regret, a law essentially legalizing abortion on demand. In his presidential campaigns and in his administration, he surrounded himself with aides of varying temperaments and inclinations — the pragmatic James Baker, the Image-minded Michael Deaver, the sturdily conservative Edwin Meese. This insured that he would get varying advice on issues and would have at hand aides willing to pursue whichever goal he chose. But it also made for a certain amount of internal strife (though not as much as in the Roosevelt administration) and for some politically indefensible moves (the mining of the Nicaraguan harbors, and the Iran-Contra arms sales). Turning 70 in his first full month as president and in the next month suffering a gunshot wound that caused him to lose most of his blood, Reagan probably did not have the capacity to monitor the internal goings-on of his administration as closely as he might have earlier. But he succeeded in pushing through policies, like the covert efforts to undermine the Soviets in Eastern Europe, that he believed were truly important.
Some compromises were costly. The Reagan tax cuts had to be phased in more slowly than he proposed, prolonging a recession that cost Republicans House seats in 1982. The Social Security compromise maintained the program for three decades but ultimately left it on an unsustainable fiscal path. The workplace enforcement provisions of the immigration act proved ineffective. But the overall verdict on the Reagan presidency was clearly positive by the time Reagan came up for re-election in 1984. Economic growth with low inflation — an outcome pronounced unachievable by liberal economists — had returned. America, without having gone to war, seemed stronger in the world. Reagan was re-elected in 1984 by a landslide majority and was the first two-term president succeeded by the nominee of his own party since Roosevelt (Eisenhower just missed being one when Richard Nixon lost narrowly in 1960). He was the first president who had the pleasure of seeing a successor of his own party inaugurated since Calvin Coolidge, whose portrait he kept in the Oval Office.
“It’s morning again, in America.” So began the most famous television ad of the 1984 Reagan campaign. It was shot in soft focus, with pictures of San Francisco harbor, a tractor, a carpooler going to work, a carpet being moved into a new house, a wedding with a grandmother embracing the bride, then the U.S. Capitol dome at night, a flag being raised with children gazing upward. The soothing voiceover recited statistics — always a Reagan favorite — about increased home-buying and lower inflation. “And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better,” it concluded. “Why would we ever want to return where we were, less than four short years ago?” The visuals could have come out of a 1940s movie and echoed the same values celebrated in the universal media in which Ronald Reagan had made his first successful career. As with Roosevelt and Eisenhower, an electorate that had experienced depression and war gave a landslide endorsement to a president who seemed to produce peace and prosperity. It’s not clear that this can happen again, in a nation where universal media have been replaced by niche media and the language of universal media is no longer accessible to any political figure.
Reagan recognized that himself in his farewell speech nine days before he left office. He called for “an informed patriotism,” which he said older Americans had gotten from their families, neighborhoods, schools, “from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio.” Or, he continued, “if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties. But now we’re about the enter the nineties and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style.”
The trends that Reagan described and lamented 25 years ago have only continued. Aspiring Republican politicians may claim Reagan’s mantle, but in today’s America even Ronald Reagan could not be Reagan. He was, like every political leader, a man of his times. His inborn optimism was strengthened by his dazzling success in pulling the country out of economic doldrums and his patriotism was reinforced by the unity of a nation mobilized for total war.
As he saw history unfold, he addressed the issues of his day — which are not the same as ours. Contemporary politicians may idealize him as a man of unflinching principle, but the record shows him deftly making his way through the political battlespace, stumbling occasionally, sometimes taking what he would decide later was a wrong turn, concentrating on things he considered centrally important and neglecting other things in the process. None of the contemporary politicians who claim to follow his path seem to have the depth of experience or steady insight of Ronald Reagan — and even if they did, the path is overgrown with briars and weeds. Those who would genuinely follow Reagan’s example need to find their own path forward, through a different and transformed America. The instinct and insight that enabled Ronald Reagan to find his path in his time is a rare gift, one that cannot be copied or cloned by invoking his name.
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