As the world looks back on the 40th president — Sunday would have been his 100th birthday — Ronald Reagan's former employees recall a generous and gentle man who assumed the presidency at a time of great turmoil.
On the 100th anniversary of his birth, Ronald Reagan is remembered as a transformative president, the creator of the contemporary Republican Party and the very definition of conservatism. He might also be as misunderstood by some of his followers as he is underappreciated by his detractors.
Reagan, who died at 93 in 2004, is the object of mythmaking and revisionism. As his presidency has undergone examination and re-evaluation by conservative and liberal scholars, his place in history has grown larger.
His centennial inspired a series of tributes — including one planned just before the Super Bowl kickoff — speeches and scholarly forums on his presidency, and three TV documentaries to air this week.
Reagan’s iconic stature among conservatives is a source of inspiration for a Republican Party that, despite its victories in November, still hungers to recapture the high points of his presidency. Yet to many Republicans, “Reagan nostalgia” is an obstacle to the party’s hopes of moving forward in a different time with challenges different from those of the 1980s.
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Reagan’s leadership style blended conviction, flexibility, toughness and optimism. Those who try to pinpoint a single attribute to explain Reagan’s success often overlook other facets of his political persona that were equally significant. And although he helped fuel the conservative ascendancy, he was not, in the estimation of scholars, a conventional conservative, certainly not by today’s standards.
Steven Hayward, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of two volumes under the title “The Age of Reagan,” said that accepting the 40th president’s unique qualities is key to understanding his impact and influence. “His particular brand of conservatism,” Hayward said, “was idiosyncratic. … He was unconventional even from a conservative point of view.”
Sean Wilentz, a liberal historian at Princeton University and author of “The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008,” said Reagan’s New Deal roots, California perspective and conservative convictions combined into a singular package that cannot be easily replicated.
“He was a Reaganite,” Wilentz said. “Maybe the only Reaganite.”
Lou Cannon, the journalist and Reagan biographer whose book “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” was on President Obama’s holiday reading list, questioned whether Reagan would be comfortable with the elements of today’s party, which demands near purity as the measure of a true conservative.
“As Reagan has become more broadly acceptable to the American people, and as the scholars give him higher rankings, the Republicans want to hold onto this pure ideological vision of a Reagan that really never existed, or if did exist, didn’t sustain one week in Sacramento or Washington,” Cannon said.
In the reinterpretations of Reagan, some liberals have sought to characterize him, as Hayward wrote recently in National Review, as a “crypto-liberal.” Reagan sought to reverse the flow of power to Washington that began with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, for whom he voted four times, but he did not attempt to dismantle key elements of the New Deal and lived with big deficits throughout his presidency.
Reagan’s conservative convictions were never in question. But he could differentiate between principles and individual policy battles. He made tax cuts a central component of Republican economics but accepted tax increases as governor and as president.
He signed a liberal abortion bill as governor of California, though he was a strong opponent of abortion as president. He called the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” but later toned down his rhetoric as he moved to negotiate with the Soviets to limit nuclear arms.
Reagan also changed the Republican approach to economic and fiscal policy by combining his call for smaller government and less power for Washington with a pro-growth message that emphasized deep tax cuts, a program that George H.W. Bush called “voodoo economics.”
He reversed the policy of detente with the Soviets that was a product of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford era. His outlook was grounded in anti-communism, which until the collapse of the Soviet Union was the strongest strand binding the conservative coalition.
Of equal importance to building a conservative movement, he brought social and religious conservatives — symbolized by the rise of the Moral Majority under the Rev. Jerry Falwell — into the coalition in a way no previous Republican leader had done, even though he rarely attended church. In 1980, he told a gathering of religious broadcasters: “You can’t endorse me, but I can endorse you.”
The coalition united the Republican Party and gave birth to a new class of GOP voters: Reagan Democrats.
Reagan easily unseated President Carter in 1980. The most memorable line from his first inaugural address underscored the core of his conservative philosophy: “In this present crisis,” he said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Yet, there were many compromises that seemed to belie those principles. He pushed through a major reduction in income-tax rates in 1981 but agreed to legislation the next year that partially offset those cuts with other tax increases.
He appointed a bipartisan commission to fix Social Security and accepted a package that included tax increases and benefit cuts. In 1986, he signed a major overhaul of the federal tax code that further lowered individual rates but also broadened the tax base and eliminated loopholes. In his second term, he signed an immigration bill that included an amnesty provision, anathema to conservatives today.
“Reagan had a strong small-business, small-government, pro-business, pro-private-sector, pro-national-security philosophy with a lot of the old so-called family values,” said Ken Duberstein, who served as White House chief of staff in Reagan’s second term. “But the reality of governing for Reagan was that he was the ultimate pragmatist.”
Reagan was always prepared to buck the establishment, including his own State Department, which opposed inclusion of the now-famous line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” in Reagan’s 1987 speech in Berlin.
He also was a president who delegated the hard work and who joked: “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?” Yet he was an astute politician and a tough negotiator. “I had no idea how shrewd he was politically,” Wilentz said.
Some Republicans see the tea-party activists as Reagan’s natural descendants. Others see the activists as ignoring the appeal of Reagan to conservatives of many stripes.
“Commentators who hail Reagan as heroic today would have been apoplectic over his views on immigration, record on deficits and his personal relationship with former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill,” said Nick Ayers, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. “But these issues were as much a part of his transformational presidency as battling the Cold War, cutting taxes, ushering in an age of devolution or revising the economy.”
Headline for Reagan library
redux goes here over two lines
The $15 million overhaul of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library will be unveiled Monday. About half the artifacts on display have never been seen by the public.
Many displays are designed for maximum appeal to a generation that was unborn when Reagan left office in 1989. Visitors can stand at a podium, focus on teleprompters and deliver Reagan’s first inaugural address. They can videotape themselves emoting as they announce a Chicago Cubs game of the early 1930s, just as Reagan did for radio station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa.
The redone library is divided into 17 galleries, each focusing on a period of Reagan’s life, from his boyhood through his acting career, from his days as California governor to his poignant 1994 announcement that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and would withdraw from public life.
His Alzheimer’s letter has been on display since 1995. Now it’s joined by audio of Reagan reading it, announcing, in shaky tones but with his characteristically upbeat manner: “At the moment, I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this Earth doing the things I have always done.”
Before the renovation, the Reagan library made scant mention of the Iran-contra scandal, the secret U.S. sale of arms to Iran despite an embargo. The new library devotes a section to Iran-contra, including a recording of Reagan’s 1987 speech in which he admits responsibility for the affair.