Ronald Wilson Reagan
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page B06
RONALD REAGAN'S was perhaps the most personal of all American presidencies, in the sense that it derived from the firsthand experiences -- personal and tangible -- of the president himself. This isn't to say that Mr. Reagan, who died yesterday at the age of 93, put his stamp on every aspect of his administration -- far from it. Mr. Reagan's inattentiveness to detail, as well as to some fairly major goings-on, was well known, and in at least one instance -- what came to be known as the Iran-contra scandal -- it hurt him, his administration and the country. But on the things that mattered most to him and that turned out to matter most to the country, he was both decisive and influenced to an unusual degree by what he had himself seen and done over the years.
Many regarded this trait as evidence of his naivete or linked it to his frequent use of dubious anecdotes and his occasional confusion of reality with movieland myth. They might be amused, or appalled, at the idea that his fervent anticommunism -- with all its implications for foreign policy -- could have had its roots in something so parochial as Mr. Reagan's battles with communists over leadership of the Screen Actors Guild. Never mind that a number of respected and influential figures in the last century -- George Orwell being a prime example -- had their own very personal epiphanies on communism, or that Mr. Reagan came, by whatever path, to an insight that eluded many intellectuals in the West far too long.
Mr. Reagan could speak with surprising certitude, and a fine disregard for the striped-pants niceties, about the Communist "evil empire" and its ensured eventual consignment to the ash heap of history. He waged his battles for tax reductions with the righteous dedication of one who had been personally nicked by the country's confiscatory postwar income tax rates (and who, somewhat characteristically, hadn't hidden his money in tax shelters). His determination to dispel the specter of nuclear weapons probably stemmed more from his reading of the Book of Revelation than from any briefings or position papers. It led to his insistence on creating a shield against ballistic missiles, which many thought simply preposterous.
"Many" refers here, of course, to a large segment of the permanent capital -- people in government, journalism, think tanks, lobbying, law -- whose frame of reference was never quite able, even after two administrations, to accommodate Ronald Reagan in the role of president. In the land of the quick, articulate and thoroughly briefed, Mr. Reagan seemed out of his depth from the day of his first press conference as president -- obviously not conversant with the subject matter that was being thrown at him from all directions, evasive, fumbling, off-balance.
To a great part of the country, it didn't matter. Mr. Reagan soon showed that although he hadn't mastered the presidential press conference -- a comparatively recent art form that may not be quite as important a measure of a chief executive's worth as some of us think -- he was more than capable of reaching the people when he could get himself alone in front of a camera and give a proper scripted speech. His physical courage and his conduct on the day he was shot outside a Washington hotel earned the country's admiration early on. His ability to rise to the occasion in his addresses -- on the 40th anniversary of D-Day in France, after the space shuttle disaster, before the British Parliament, in front of the Berlin Wall -- was not simply an attribute of a good politician; it fulfilled one of the most important functions of the presidency. Mr. Reagan reaffirmed the basic beliefs of people in the words he spoke, and he sounded like a president who believed what he said.
Before his election in 1980, Mr. Reagan was asked what he thought voters saw in him. "Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves, and that I'm one of them?" he said. "I've never been able to detach myself or think that I, somehow, am apart from them." In Mr. Reagan's case, this was not the testimony of a flesh-pressing, hail-fellow man of the people. People who knew him about as well as he could be known said he wasn't given to deep friendships or easy confidences. He was distant, in many ways a mystery to those who sought to understand or explain him. But he linked up with the people at an essential level: He thought this a basically good country, and so did they. Mr. Reagan had, from boyhood, a sunny, almost obstinate optimism of the kind that is very much a part of the mental makeup of the nation. He made a connection, and the power he drew from it provided the motivating force of his presidency -- the source of its major accomplishments and some of its shortcomings.
Mr. Reagan will forever be seen by certain of his adversaries as an easily manipulated executive, something of a figurehead, fronting for the traditional interests of his party. This view fails to take into account how forceful, focused and sometimes stubbornly personal Mr. Reagan was regarding the basic matters on which his administration will be judged. His own predilections on taxes were bolstered by a powerful strain of thought among Republicans, creating momentum for the large reductions that rolled to enactment in his first term. The cuts, combined with the defense buildup that was also a major item on the Reagan agenda, led to growing deficits, which inevitably struck hard at services for the poor, especially during the deep recession of the early 1980s. A lot of people were hurt by these policies, a fact that in our view did not weigh heavily enough on this president. His intermittent denigration of government, and of people who depended on government services, fed into and bolstered hurtful and unfair stereotypes. But unlike some of the more committed among his following, Mr. Reagan was willing to compromise on taxes when the deficits began to mount, and in 1986 he cooperated in enacting a much-needed comprehensive reform of income tax law.
This same ability to change course when the situation merited it was the key to what will surely be the most enduring achievement of the Reagan administration: its contribution to the peaceful dismantling of Communist rule over Eastern Europe and Russia and the dramatic agreements on arms reductions between the United States and the Soviet Union. People will debate for years the causes of the Soviet empire's fall -- did it collapse from within, or did the American administration play a major role? But what seems reasonably clear is that Mr. Reagan played his part in the Cold War endgame with both steadfastness and the necessary degree of flexibility. He had come to office with some rather shocking gaps in his knowledge of national security matters -- there were indications he believed for a time that submarine-launched missiles could be recalled. But he could be a quick study, and certainly in the final years of the Cold War, the longtime anticommunist did a graceful turnabout in seizing the opportunity presented by the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union and potential negotiating partner.
Astrong argument can be made that Mr. Reagan played a vital role in creating the conditions in which the Cold War could be ended without major upheaval or conflict and in advancing the cause of freedom in lands that hadn't known it for four decades, if ever. He did so through his arms buildup, his firm position on intermediate-range missiles in Europe -- continuing the policy of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter -- and other acts conveying his intention to enhance and maintain the country's strength. It's easy to forget now how powerful the sentiment was among many Western opinion makers against placing intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe to counter the Soviets' installation of similar weapons. It was the time of the "nuclear freeze" movement. Mr. Reagan thought we could do better than just a freeze, and in the end we -- and the rest of the world -- did.
Fourteen years after his election as president, and nearly a decade ago, Mr. Reagan made his final statement to the public: an announcement in November 1994 that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. It was brief and practical-minded ("we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition"). It was also, quite typically, hopeful. "I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead," Mr. Reagan concluded, showing a pretty fair awareness, in the face of a dread diagnosis, of what the American people expect, and sometimes must have, from a president.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company