Thinking about Ronald Reagan: On 100th birthday, he’s remembered for good reason

This piece was originally published in Politics Daily.

On the eve of Ronald Reagan’s election as president of the United States in 1980, a radio reporter asked him what it was that Americans saw in him. Reagan hesitated and then replied: “Would you laugh if I told you that I think maybe they see themselves and that I’m one of them?”

Thirty years and four presidents later, Americans still see themselves in Reagan. In a Gallup poll in 2009 they ranked Reagan as the best president, just ahead of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.
This highly generous assessment is based on more than likeability. Reagan left the world safer and the United States more prosperous than he found it. Even some liberal scholars who disdained Reagan when he was in the White House now acknowledge his effectiveness as a leader, especially his role in ending the Cold War. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, his partner in that enterprise, said at Reagan’s funeral that the U.S. president was “an extraordinary political leader” who had “decided to be a peacemaker.”

Reagan the Negotiator is the president who catches the attention of historians. Conservatives, to whom Reagan is iconic, observe that he was able to negotiate with Gorbachev from a position of strength because of the U.S. arms buildup that Reagan promised as a candidate and delivered as a president. They also note that Reagan was a domestic achiever, reducing the top marginal federal income tax rate from 70 to 28 percent.

This didn’t happen in a straight line, as Reagan made numerous compromises along the way to reach this goal, several times agreeing to tax increases. His greatest domestic accomplishment — breaking the back of inflation that terrified the nation in the late 1970s — was a product not of “supply side” economics ballyhooed by conservatives but of the drastic tightening of interest rates by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. Under the battle cry of “stay the course,” Reagan contributed to the process by protecting Volcker from congressional critics, many of them Republican, who wanted the Fed chairman’s scalp.

When the economy took off in the second quarter of 1983, with a growth rate that averaged 7 percent for the rest of the year, Reagan’s approval ratings soared with it. The “Reagan Recession” lasted 16 months; the Reagan Recovery persisted well into the next presidency. Reagan became popular enough to withstand the Iran-contra scandal, which might have wrecked a lesser president, and he left the White House with the highest job approval rating of any departing president since Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office in 1945.

FDR, Reagan’s first (and enduring) political idol, was a patrician, which Reagan was not. But both of them connected with people at an everyday level. Stuart K. Spencer, the thoughtful California political strategist who helped manage Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial and 1980 presidential campaigns, compared Reagan to “Joe Sixpack,” the emblematic guy at the bar who has his fingers on the pulse of the public.

Reagan didn’t drink much beer, but he paid such careful attention to his audiences that he sometimes sensed their concerns before they were fully articulated. When Reagan was exploring a run for governor of California in 1965, polls showed that voters were most concerned about taxes and other economic issues. But as Reagan, who had never run for office before, roamed the state he became aware of an issue that had not yet shown up in the public opinion surveys. Demonstrations were then disrupting the University of California, and Reagan’s audiences wanted to know what he would do about it as governor. Reagan quickly realized that middle-class and working-class parents who had sons and daughters in college saw these demonstrations as a threat to their children’s education. Without prompting, Reagan made the “mess at Berkeley” a signature issue of his campaign.

I met Reagan in the summer of 1965, when I was a Sacramento-based reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News and he was speaking to a luncheon audience of reporters and lobbyists. The speech was part of a series of Reagan talks away from the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco that had been designed by Spencer and his partner Bill Roberts to show that Reagan was something more than an actor reading lines written for him by others. Reagan called the speeches “out-of-town tryouts” and wrote his own script.

On this day, when a questioner wondered how anyone could be governor without public experience, Reagan replied that it would be good to have someone who was inexperienced take a fresh look at government. I was stunned by the answer, but the audience clearly bought it. Reagan was then well known from his films and years as the host of General Electric Theater, and reporters and lobbyists crowded around him after the luncheon, eager to hear Reagan reminisce about Hollywood.

At the time, the incumbent Democratic governor, Pat Brown, was hoping the GOP would nominate Reagan on the theory he’d be easier to beat than the putative Republican frontrunner, San Francisco Mayor George Christopher. I wasn’t so sure. When my San Jose-based editor asked my opinion of Reagan after this lunch, I said I didn’t know why anyone would want to run against someone who was so well known and well liked.

Over the course of the next four-plus decades, I covered Reagan as a political candidate and then, for The Washington Post, for the entire eight years of his presidency. I wrote five books about him, including “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” and interviewed him scores of times. He was always courteous, although my edgy coverage apparently tried his patience. He complained about it occasionally to his White House diaries, referring to me as “one of three journalists” at the paper “who regularly beat my brains out.” In truth, I was struggling to understand Reagan and to keep my reporting on an even keel.

Reagan made it easier in one important way since he never tried to co-opt reporters as so many politicians do. Although there were occasional personal moments in our relationship — he once suggested that my interest in him stemmed in part from the alcoholism of our fathers — he never pretended that we were pals, and rarely commented on anything I wrote.

For me, the big exception regarding Reagan’s usual diffidence occurred in 1976 when I wrote in advance of the Republican National Convention that Reagan’s bid to wrest the nomination from President Gerald Ford had come up short and that members of his staff were seeking positions in the Ford campaign. The Post bannered the story, and Reagan denounced it on national television. (Concerned that I might be shaken, our great editor Ben Bradlee, always on your side in a storm, walked me through the newsroom with his arm on my shoulder to show he trusted my reporting.) Reagan’s campaign manager never forgot this story and wouldn’t talk to me again, but Reagan did talk to me and didn’t mention it. He put negative stories and other disappointments behind him, and he didn’t hold grudges, which made it easy to like him and easy for Reagan to like everyone.

On the other hand, he didn’t pay all that much attention to what was happening around him. He had Nancy Reagan for that. Martin Anderson, an economist and political adviser who became White House domestic adviser in the early years of the Reagan presidency, was pushed out of the 1980 campaign in a staff shakeup. Later, Anderson was invited back and welcomed by Reagan after a staff counter-coup, but he suspected that Reagan hadn’t even noticed that he had been gone.

Stu Spencer attributed Reagan’s distancing to his Hollywood background, where the cast kept changing but the actor always had his job to do. Acting isn’t an easy craft, and Reagan worked hard at mastering it. He was also an adept writer — I learned early on that he wrote most of his own speeches and one-liners — and an even better editor. The book “Reagan in His Own Hand,” by Annelise and Martin Anderson, with Kiron Skinner, reproduces illustrations of presidential speech drafts and the edits Reagan made in them.

My favorite, also reproduced in one of my books, is a passage from a historic speech to British parliamentarians in Westminster on June 8, 1982, in which Reagan took some mush that had been written for him about Soviet actions in Europe, crossed it out, and wrote in his distinctive, looping hand: “What I am describing now is a policy and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other totalitarian ideologies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the expression of citizens.”

These are strong words from Joe Sixpack, but Reagan was at once a man of conviction who thought seriously about the great issues of his time and an ordinary American, never braggy, who treated his audiences — all of us, really — with consideration and respect. His greatest single quality was his self-deprecating humor, which came naturally to him and was honed into an effective political weapon. He made fun of his age, his work habits, his vanities, his ideology, his alleged lack of intelligence, and his supposed domination by his wife. When he was speaking to a political rally in Florida and a wind blew his speaking cards off a podium, Reagan picked them up, shuffled them together, and quipped that it really didn’t matter what order they were in. When a reporter during the first gubernatorial campaign brought Reagan a studio picture showing him with the title chimpanzee in the movie “Bedtime for Bonzo,” Reagan signed it and wrote, “I’m the one with the watch.” On Air Force One he signed a picture of a sleeping Marlin Fitzwater, his press secretary, with the inscription, “Marlin, we’re only supposed to do this at cabinet meetings.”

Of all the silly things said about Reagan, the silliest (and I probably wrote it myself at some point) is the statement: “What you see is what you get.” What people saw, as Reagan suspected, was that he was one of them, but what they got was a lot more than that. Reagan, for all the quips, was a serious person who had read about treaties and economic theories and the Soviet Union along with his share of science fiction and potboiler novels.

Reagan demonstrated his seriousness of purpose and much more in a dramatic speech to the Republican National Convention in 1976 after Ford had been nominated. Although he hadn’t even known he would be called upon to speak, Reagan made the most of the moment by telling the delegates that they faced the dual challenge of preserving individual freedom and keeping the world safe from nuclear destruction. “We live in a world in which the great powers have poised and aimed at each other horrible missiles of destruction that can, in a matter of minutes, arrive in each other’s country and destroy virtually the civilized world we live in.”

Many mistook this speech as Reagan’s curtain call. It was, in fact, a clarion declaration that he had no intention of leaving the world stage. After Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in November, Reagan became the Republican front-runner. The Republican establishment tried to stop this man they now idolize; all of the party nabobs lined up against him in 1980 although only George H.W. Bush stuck around as a genuine challenger. After Reagan won the nomination he united the GOP in a stroke by putting Bush on the ticket and then went on to defeat Carter — “There you go again,” Reagan said memorably in their debate — in November.

When Reagan entered the White House he was convinced from his reading that Central Intelligence Agency estimates of Soviet prowess were exaggerated and that the Soviet Union was too destitute economically to compete with a U.S. military buildup. Even before he was nominated, he said in a meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Post that a renewed arms race would bring the Soviet Union to the bargaining table. What made Reagan different from many of his fellow conservatives — and different, too, from liberals who looked upon the Cold War as an eternal condition — was that he really wanted to negotiate and thought he had learned the art of doing so by bargaining with movie producers when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Soon after Reagan’s first meeting with Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985, I interviewed him for a book and asked him what was the most neglected aspect of his biography. Negotiating for the Screen Actors Guild, he replied. What did he learn in these negotiations, I wanted to know. “That the purpose of a negotiation is to get an agreement,” Reagan said.

And so it turned out in the fullness of time that this most conservative and anti-communist of all presidents sat down with Gorbachev and, after many ups and downs, on Dec. 8, 1987, signed the first treaty of the Cold War that actually reduced nuclear arsenals instead of stabilizing them at a higher level. It was an agreement by the way — the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty — that Reagan’s ideological mentor William F. Buckley opposed and that columnist George Will called “moral disarmament.”

Henry Kissinger, who retrospectively acclaims Reagan, said at the time that he had “grave reservations” about the INF Treaty, giving aid and comfort to the right in its campaign to prevent ratification. Reagan took his case to the people, and the Senate ratified the treaty.

It was a precursor to other agreements, the most recent signed by Barack Obama, which made deeper reductions in nuclear arsenals. Today, U.S. and Russian specialists inspect nuclear weapons on each other’s soil, an action that would have been seen as unbelievably utopian when Reagan became president. Not bad for Joe Sixpack.

Photo credit: Flickr user cliff1066

Comments

comments