RONALD REAGAN: THE GREATEST PRESIDENT SINCE FDR
The Advantages of Ideological Rigidity and Tactical Flexibility
By Gil Troy
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and author of Mr. And Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons.
Tompaine.com - Aug 04 2000
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Written||Claiming that Ronald Reagan was a
great president is not for the faint-hearted -- or the
untenured. He continues to provoke controversy -- and
mockery. Nearly twenty years after his inauguration,
millions still refuse to forgive him for repudiating the
Great Society, for slighting the poor and minorities, for
producing deficits "as far as the eye could
These moves, among others, make Ronald Reagan an unlikely candidate for presidential greatness. He was often caricatured as a boob or an extremist, a second-rate actor hewing to a right-wing script his handlers wrote. He did not expand the federal government or lead a compassionate crusade, as most historians like their presidential heroes to do. His administration was marred by the comic and the tragic, by gaffes and by scandals, by the lunacy of astrology-based scheduling and the banditry of Iran-contra.
Yet, as the twentieth century ends, Ronald Reagan looms ever larger as the greatest American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. His combination of ideological rigidity and tactical fluidity reinvigorated the presidency. His Hollywood-slick small town faith in America as a "shining city on the hill" restored many Americans' faith in themselves and their country.
Americans are deep into the second decade of what in fairness we should call either the Ronald Reagan-Bill Clinton boom, the Paul Volcker-Alan Greenspan boom, or the Hi-Tech-Information-Age-Baby-Boomers-reaching-their-earnings-potential boom. We are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the peaceful reunification of Berlin, which occurred a little more than two years after Reagan demanded "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" And we are in the waning days of a Democratic president who helped secure re-election in 1996 with the Reaganesque boast that "the era of big government is over."
Wherever one turns, signs abound that, for better or worse, we live in the age of Ronald Reagan. We see it in the fact that his Sunbelt conservatism continues to shine in the courts, the Senate, and in many state capitals. We see it in the continuing cultural conversation about our values and our souls. We see it in the blurring of popular and political culture, as prime-time television shows model themselves on life in the White House, a galaxy of movie stars queue up for a political run, and our president and his wife play the fame game like Hollywood celebrities. We see it in both the conspicuous spending that continues to consume so many of us and, alas, the tone-deafness too many of us have to pleas to help the unfortunate. We see it in the continuing fights over the issues that first brought Reagan to power: abortion, affirmative action, the budget, Social Security. And we see it in the sentimental patriotism that he helped resurrect, be it evidenced in our nation's resolve during the Gulf War or in our ever-kitschier national celebrations.
Even though Reagan worshiped Calvin Coolidge, he wanted to emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt. Reagan positioned himself as the president who saved America from a decade of drift and from three decades of big government; he played Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter's Herbert Hoover. But Roosevelt, like John Kennedy, knew how to charm intellectuals; Reagan, like Andrew Jackson, did not care about them. Reagan's aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart patriotism, his Reader's Digest common sense, his impatience with policy details or abstractions, and his tendency to mistake celluloid memories for actual recollections earned popular approval and intellectual disdain. As a result, historians may praise Roosevelt's political genius for telling two speechwriters fighting over contradictory policies to "weave the two together"; that Reagan settled arguments by smiling and saying, "Okay you fellows work it out" proves to historians that he was a dolt.
Of course, Ronald Reagan was no Franklin Roosevelt. At most, Reagan slowed the growth of big government. He was too pragmatic, and too politically weak, to do much more. The Democratic Congress and the characteristic incrementalism of the American political system shackled Reagan. He shifted course by a few degrees, but did not succeed in veering right overnight. It took time for the Reagan revolution to restrain the courts, weaken the bureaucracy, reorient the body politic. Today, under a Democratic administration, America seems further away from the Great Society than it did at the end of Reagan's reign. But it was Reagan's appointments that revolutionized the judiciary; it was Reagan's small-government rhetoric along with his astronomical deficits that have kept Americans budget conscious even amid growing surpluses.
In fact, domestically, Reagan is most reminiscent of James Knox Polk, who came to office with three goals -- and met each one. Reagan wanted to restore American pride, he wanted to deregulate, and he wanted to cut the marginal tax rate. He accomplished all three, even if the pride came with a certain cynicism and the tax cuts came with a host of "user fees." The insouciance and laziness for which he is so infamous partially resulted from this focus on those goals to the exclusion of others. David Stockman was much more committed to balancing the budget than his boss.
On foreign policy, it is too facile to say -- as many do -- that Reagan simply was lucky. True Mikhail Gorbachev was a blessing from heaven. But it takes skill to turn luck into permanent good fortune. Reagan's mix of saber rattling and pacifism worked. His naive faith in Star Wars terrified and helped bankrupt the Soviets; his aversion to the experts' doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction motivated him to nurture his rapport with Gorbachev -- and match the Soviet leader's boldness.
At the same time, it is equally simplistic to say that Reagan won the Cold War singlehandedly. The Cold war victory was a joint achievement of all the presidents from Harry Truman through George Bush. It is a tribute to the bipartisan consensus that kept American strong but not too aggressive in the face of communism.
Despite the pragmatism that diluted his conservatism, Ronald Reagan was a galvanizing figure. He made the 1980s a stimulating decade, filled with ideological debate about a central question: what do prosperous Americans owe their less fortunate fellow citizens? Hundreds of young conservatives flocked to Washington -- and stayed there, making it a more bipartisan, if less chummy, town. Books like Charles Murray's Losing Ground and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind furthered the sense of ideological ferment. At the same time, Reagan forced the Democrats to update their ideology, and find a post-liberal "third way."
All these accomplishments do not eliminate Reagan's shortcomings. His obtuseness in the face of misery and injustice, the chaos that often overwhelmed his administration, the millions alienated by his policies, prevent him from becoming a bipartisan deity like Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, or George Washington. Still, using the Time magazine measure of greatness -- "the person who most affected the news and our lives, for good or for ill" -- Ronald Reagan certainly ranks among the great presidents of the twentieth century.
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