Richard Reeves

Ronald Reagan: Based on a True Story

WASHINGTON -- Twenty-five years ago, on Jan. 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States. The line best remembered as the former governor of California took over the federal government was: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."

He touched on four simple themes, the same ones he had been repeating for years, first as spokesman for the General Electric Co., then as governor and the post-Goldwater icon of the conservative wing of the Republican Party: (1) reducing taxes and budget deficits, thus reducing the power and size of the government; (2) rebuilding the American military; (3) confronting communism around the world; and (4) renewing American pride and patriotism.

He blew his first goal. He reduced income taxes in an energetic first year, but those taxes and others immediately began creeping up again. Government kept growing, although spending shifted from domestic social programs to military spending. Deficits exploded as the man who had made a career of attacking "tax and spend" Democrats invented a new kind of Republicanism that might be called "spend and borrow." Only our grandchildren, as they pay Reagan's bills, will know the real cost of those policies and of opportunities lost, beginning with national health care.

But Reagan did keep his other three promises. He increased military spending by more than 50 percent. He scrapped "containment" and "detente" in favor of his own inclinations, articulated to his first national security adviser, Richard Allen: "I know you think I don't have a strategy for dealing with communism, but I do: We win! They lose!"

And the old actor persuaded Americans to believe in themselves and in a past imagined, telling us we were better than other people, God's chosen, the last best hope, citizens of a shining city on a hill. Simply speaking and speaking simply, Reagan had a gift for turning issues into emotions. In effect, he dumbed-down America, persuading us to suspend belief and reality, combining fact and fiction, to make politics and governance just another subsidiary of his old business, entertainment. His governance was based on a true story.

A stubborn and determined old man not greatly interested in learning anything new, Reagan instinctively understood the presidency in important ways derided and mocked by many of his contemporaries. He knew the job is not managing the government; the job is leading the nation. He knew words could be more important than deeds.

The greatest irony of the Reagan years, I would argue after working five years on a book about his tenure, "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination," is that the old man was being managed and manipulated by a savvy cadre of younger men and an ambitious wife. But, he hardly knew the names of his staff; the younger men he called "fellas." They were pretty much interchangeable to him. His most talented and effective assistant, James A. Baker III, put it this way: "He treated us all the same, as hired help."

He seemed disengaged because he was. He did not care about most of what the government did. But it seemed that he had come to Washington with a six-year script for an eight-year presidency. He also seemed politically dead after his reckless blundering in the Middle East sent America crusading against Islam, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of American servicemen and the beginnings of some of the terrorism we now know. He led his own administration into illegal (almost comic) arms-for-hostages deals bartered from Teheran to Tel Aviv to Tegucigalpa.

He was pretty much on his own by then. Congress and the press treated him as a fool or a crook. But he knew one big thing, always had: Communism was falling of its own weight and contradictions. Conservatives abandoned him, consigning him to Lenin's category of "useful idiots." But he had found the key to victory in the Cold War, a Soviet leader who also understood old-fashioned communism was collapsing. The official notes of the Mikhail Gorbachev-Reagan meetings, finally released, show convincingly that in the end, Reagan, trying to save his ideology and his presidency, prevailed over the Russian trying to save his ideology and his country.

At the end of 1987, Reagan's seventh year in office, Gorbachev came to Washington. There was a state dinner on Dec. 8, which ended with Gorbachev and his wife standing and belting out the lively "Moscow Nights" as Van Cliburn played the piano. Two days later, the best of the conservative columnists, Reagan's best friend in the press, George Will, wrote, "Dec. 8, 1987, will be remembered as the day the Cold War was lost."

In fact, it was the day we won the Cold War. Reagan did not, as his champions preach, win it. We all did, beginning with Harry S. Truman, but Reagan in his stubborn conviction speeded the end. There was no one at that west-facing inauguration in January 1981 who imagined that within 10 years the Soviet Union would be dissolved and a new Russia would begin applying for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Well, maybe Ronald Reagan did. But no one took him seriously -- then.

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