Richard Reeves

Ronald Reagan: A Personal Greatness

PARIS -- In three years of researching a book on the presidency of Ronald Reagan, I usually ended interviews with this question: Was Ronald Reagan a great man? The answer was almost always the same, from friends, from foes: "Yes."

Some hesitated a long time before giving that answer -- I especially remember Donald Regan, the bitter, fired White House chief of staff. Some nodded and added, "for better or worse." I suppose I am in that last group myself. But I would answer "Yes" because Reagan did what great people do; he changed the way people thought.

He was an original in many ways. That is why we use the word "Reaganism," a noun. Other presidents, great and small, inspired only adjectives, "Lincolnesque" or "Jeffersonian."

Let me count some of the ways Reagan changed things:

(1) He created, perhaps saved, both American conservatism and the Republican Party. After Nixon and before Reagan, the movement that became Reaganism was shattered, almost comic, a melange of Episcopals and Evangelicals, Wall Street and rebellious Westerners, libertarians and old prudes, isolationists and internationalists, country club corporatists and gun-nut racists. He, and only he, personally united them in the country's governing movement.

(2) He changed the context of the Cold War, not only by using words like "evil" and "aberration," but by rejecting the strategies of containment and detente. After his unsuccessful run for president in 1976, Reagan was briefed by the party's foreign policy elite, offering him outlines of a Cold War strategy. Reagan listened politely (he was a man of manners as opposed to warmth) and said: "Thank you, but I do have a strategy on communism: We win, they lose!"

(3) He turned American populism completely around. No longer, he told us, were big business, the banks and such pushing around the little guy. No, he said it was big government that was the enemy.

(4) Failing totally in his promises to balance the federal budget, tripling the national debt, and discovering that "supply-side economics" was a cruel joke, he led conservatives such as Vice President Cheney to declare: "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." Republicans who attacked the "tax and spend" reign of Franklin Roosevelt turned to "borrow and spend" -- which is of course exactly what they are doing right now, fighting a war with credit cards.

Reagan didn't work very hard, as we know. But what did that matter? Presidents aren't paid by the hour. They are paid to understand what the presidency is -- and Reagan totally mastered the job because he understood how to be president as well or better than any of his 38 predecessors. He understood that, almost always, words are more important than deeds. It is words that move people -- the Strategic Defense Initiative was, after all, only words well used -- and the biggest job he did at his desk was speechwriting and editing. Most everything else was left to fellows whose names he couldn't remember very well.

He overdid the inspirational bit, restoring American pride. He ended up persuading his fellow Americans that they were better than other people, the last best hope on Earth, invincible because of their grace and talent. It was not far from there (and the slaughter his administration covertly financed in Central America) to the streets of Baghdad.

We shall not see his like again soon -- if ever. And many people think that is a good thing. He talked his fellow Americans into believing gigantic transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich was God's work. The rich, at least, believed him. The new underclass still sort of liked him. He ignored racial problems and AIDS research as beneath the attention of those of us living in a shining city on a hill.

Will he be remembered then as a great president, which is quite different than being a great man? Well, there is a well-financed cottage industry, centered at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, dedicated to getting Ronald Reagan onto Mount Rushmore, unless they find a higher hill. Some of Hoover's work, particularly books on Reagan's skills with words, are persuasive and useful revisionism. Some of the other stuff reads like romance novels of men and women who touched Reagan and were cured forever.

For now, at least until I finish my own book, I'll hold onto the Chou En-lai answer. Asked whether the French Revolution was a good or bad thing, Chou reputedly said: "It's too soon to tell."

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