I only had the chance to see Ronald Reagan in the flesh a handful of times. I distinctly remember when he came to Idaho to campaign for then-Rep. Steve Symms in 1980. He had incredible stage presence, a great voice, mannerisms, an almost unprecedented ability to connect with the audience. The Great Communicator.
With his 100th birthday this past weekend, the Canonization of Reagan has – perhaps – reached its zenith. Reagan is the one Republican all Republicans can rally to. In his approach to the presidency, he has become – even for Barack Obama – a touchstone, an example of how to use the awesome public powers of the office to move the country, the Congress and the world.
It’s both good politics and good historical analysis on Obama’s part to look to The Gipper for inspiration. In a piece in USA Today, Obama said of Reagan: “At a time when our nation was going through an extremely difficult period, with economic hardship at home and very real threats beyond our borders, it was this positive outlook, this sense of pride, that the American people needed more than anything.”
There is a theory among presidential historians that it takes 25 years after a president leaves office to begin to come to grips with the man, the accomplishments and the shortcomings. If that is correct, we’re about to have the historical distance to look back on the Reagan Era and make some judgments.
As much of the Reagan at 100 reporting has pointed out, much about Reagan is – no nice way to put it – a myth.
In 1981 he did push through the greatest tax cut in history to that time, but he also raised taxes 11 times during his presidency. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited Reagan’s diaries, says: “There’s a false mythology out there about Reagan as this conservative president who came in and just cut taxes and trimmed federal spending in a dramatic way. It didn’t happen that way. It’s false.”
The Tea Partiers who genuflect at his memory conveniently ignore that the federal deficit ballooned on his watch and the federal government grew. Reagan advocated, passionately advocated, the Star Wars missile defense scheme, but also went to the summit with Gorbachev determined to try to eliminate all nuclear weapons. He pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon after an attack on Marines there and he did trade arms for hostages. In short, the man’s record is more complex and ultimately more interesting than the Reagan myths.
Myth making in politics is a bipartisan game. Democrats have long clung to their Roosevelt myth, of example. FDR’s sunny disposition, great communicator talents and fundamental faith in the American system are the self same attributes most find so endearing about Ronald Reagan. Yet, Roosevelt’s sunny personality hid a tough, even mean, streak that played out in his efforts to “purge” the Democratic Party of conservatives in 1938. His reverence for the American system didn’t prevent him from trying to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937. If George W. Bush played fast and loose with the truth in the run-up to the Iraq War, FDR did the same in the run-up to World War II.
Had Roosevelt’s presidency ended after the 1940 election, with the country deprived of his splendid leadership during the war, we might only remember him today as the man whose policies made too little dent in the side of the Great Depression and who blew up his second term trying to “reform” the Supreme Court. Timing counts for a lot in politics.
Like FDR, Reagan created and maintained an uncanny ability to shape the symbols and power of the presidency into an American narrative. They both stood for the America of boundless opportunity; the shining city on a hill. They spoke to the aspirations of Americans, never fully achieved, but important nonetheless. They were, in a word, inspirational leaders.
It didn’t hurt either man’s reputation that their presidencies fell between the tenure of other presidents who never seemed to measure up to the job. Both Reagan and Roosevelt share one other trait, I think, that makes them – myths and all – endure. Both were unlikely leaders, neither really born to the success they achieved. Their success was not inevitable.
True enough Roosevelt came from great wealth and enjoyed the benefits of a powerful name, but unlike his distant cousin, who also became a great president, Franklin was, in the famous words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, equipped only with “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.” FDR’s struggle to overcome polio is a measure of the man’s determination and temperament.
Reagan rose from Hollywood, B-movie actor to GE pitchman, to Governor of California. As Peggy Noonan, who wrote some of his best lines – lines he practiced and delivered so well – wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “He ran for president four times and lost twice. His 1968 run was a flop—it was too early, as he later admitted, and when it’s too early, it never ends well. In 1976 he took on an incumbent Republican president of his own party, and lost primaries in New Hampshire, Florida, Illinois (where he’d been born), Massachusetts and Vermont. It was hand-to-hand combat all the way to the convention, where he lost to Gerald Ford. People said he was finished. He roared back in 1980 only to lose Iowa and scramble back in New Hampshire while reorganizing his campaign and firing his top staff. He won the nomination and faced another incumbent president.”
Reagan, like FDR, had a great sense of humor; something that will get you a long way in life and in politics. Roosevelt could joke about “my little dog Fala” and tweak his political opponents in the process. Noonan recounts a classic Reagan joke, “a man says sympathetically to his friend, ‘I’m so sorry your wife ran away with the gardener.’ The guy answers, ‘It’s OK, I was going to fire him anyway.'”
There is at least one, big, practical political lesson in the lives of the two men – Reagan and Roosevelt – who more than any others have shaped American politics for the last 75 years. Optimism, charm, humor, the ability to communicate from the head and the heart, and the gravitas of that hard to define quality “leadership” are all attributes we value in friends and family. Big surprise: we reward those same qualities in our politicians.
Much of what we think we know about great figures in our history just isn’t so, but still the myths survive, even as the complex truth is much more interesting and ultimately more important.