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Reagan: Biographer

Dinesh D'Souza
Wednesday, June 9, 2004; 11:00 AM

Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th president of the United States, died on Saturday at age 93 after a 10-year struggle with Alzheimer's Disease. Reagan, often called "the great communicator," led the country through the height of the Cold War, dramatically reshaping U.S.-Soviet relations.

Dinesh D'Souza, author of "Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader," discussed Reagan's life and presidency.

D'Souza is the Robert and Karen Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University. He is the author of numerous books including "What's So Great About America," "The End of Racism," and "The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno Affluence." D'Souza was senior domestic policy analyst at the White House during the Reagan administration from 1987 to 1988.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Dinesh D'Souza: Reagan met virtually none of the criteria of great leadership. Yet enormously important things happened during his watch. To me the interesting questions are: did he do them? How? And does Reagan's success force us to reconsider our definition of effective leadership?


Virginia: Where would you rank Reagan as a president? Did you visit the Library over the past few days to pay your respects? Thank you.

Dinesh D'Souza: I haven't been to the Library, but I may go later this week. Diplomat Clare Booth Luce once said that history, which has no room for clutter, will remember every president by only one line. Reagan will be remembered as the president who won the Cold War and revived the American economy and the American spirit. I would rank Reagan as one of the near-great or great presidents. I can't put him in the same league as Washington and Lincoln. But I'd put him in the next category with Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR.


Plano, Tex.: How have the tax cuts and spending increases during President Reagan's administration benefited the U.S. economy over the past 25 years?

Dinesh D'Souza: The tax cuts, combined with Reagan's other policies such as deregulation, privatization, and the celebration of the entrepreneur over the bureaucrat as the embodiment of American ideals--all of this helped to launch a juggernaut of economic growth that began in 1983 and (with a few small hiccups) kept going until the late 1990s. Remember the Dow Jones average in 1982 was 888! It tripled during the Reagan years, and tripled again during the Clinton years. The deficits that Reagan's critics worried about during the 1980s simply disappeared because the economic boom greatly boosted the government's tax revenues.


Dryden, N.Y.: A difficult question. Watching the SIMI viewing I have been struck by the overwhelming whiteness of the crowd. This to me is one dark facet of the Reagan legacy, a man who chose to start his campaign in Philadelphia, Mich.. Why do you think he was so tone deaf on the vital American issue of race?

Dinesh D'Souza: Reagan had an unfailingly inclusive vision of America. His view was that it didn't matter where you came from or who you were. What mattered was what you could do. Immigrants found this appealing. Blacks in general didn't. Blacks are at a peculiar point in their history where many of them believe that "race does matter" and "race should matter." A different vision from what Martin Luther King held in his "I Have a Dream" speech. So Reagan didn't reject blacks, blacks rejected Reagan. It's unfortunate, but I don't think it tells against Reagan. Maybe there will be some reconsideration of Reagan now by African Americans.


Columbia, Md.: Do you find it ironic that Reagan, being against big wasteful government (despite all his defense spending) is being honored in part by giving all Federal workers another paid day off?

Dinesh D'Souza: The economy will survive a day's holiday. Incidentally Reagan's defense spending was not "wasteful." It helped to bring about a a shift in momentum that resulted in the Soviets changing strategy and appointing Gorbachev. Gorbachev didn't want to get into an arms race with the United States that he couldn't afford. So Reagan's defense hikes contributed to the end of the cold war. Even in economic terms, they were more than repaid by the huge defense savings that resulted from the end of the cold war. Reagan's defense hikes were one of the most successful investments in modern history.


Arlington, Va.: I cannot accept all this credit to Ronald Reagan for ending communism. Our country knew in the 1960's that the USSR would fall apart internally. If any US leader deserves credit for the downfall of the USSR, shouldn't that credit go to Richard Nixon (and Henry Kissinger) ? The policy of detente waited out the USSR without major warfare.

Dinesh D'Souza: I agree that Reagan didn't do it alone. America had a consistent anti-Soviet policy going back to Truman and Eisenhower. But "containment" and "detente" by themselves were not enough. Our country certainly did not "know" the USSR would fall apart internally. On the contrary, the overwhelming consensus among liberals and conservatives was, "The Soviet Union is here to stay. Let's learn how to live with it." Only difference was the liberals wanted coexistence through arms control and the conservatives wanted coexistence through strength. Reagan was almost unique in repeatedly predicting the complete collapse of Soviet Communism. He was almost unique in calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire," which it was. Reagan altered the debate from "containment" to "rollback." And even Gorbachev said recently that without Reagan the cold war would not have ended when it did.


Bethesda, Md.: Just a comment. I don't think the eulogies have given President Reagan enough credit for the extraordinary support and protection he afforded Saddam Hussein during the 1980's. Besides arming him with chemical weapons, his administration also supplied Saddam with our satellite intelligence with which he was better able to target his weapons of mass destruction during his war with Iran (Donald Rumsfeld, an envoy to Baghdad for Reagan, knew whereof he spoke last year when he sanctimoniously decried Hussein for his past use of WMD).

Furthermore, Mr. Reagan stood firm against most of the world as it clamored for condemnation of the Baghdad regime after its chemical weapons use was revealed - scuttling both congressional moves for censure and UN resolutions of condemnation. Reagan was a true friend and apologist for Saddam when the latter enjoyed little amity in the world.

Let's not leave Reagan's legacy incomplete by omitting these acts among his accomplishments. Thanks.

Dinesh D'Souza: Your question commits the anachronistic fallacy. You're using information available now to condemn Reagan for the decisions he made then. Obviously he didn't know what we now know. This is no fair way to evaluate a statesman. Consider: We now know Bin Laden is a bad guy. But was the U.S. wrong to support the Afghan mujahedin who were fighting Soviet oppression, even though the group included Bin Laden? Of course not! The Soviets were the great threat then and we were right to respond to it. So too the great threat in the 1980s was Khomeini and the radical Islamic revolution he unleashed. Khomeini unleashed the wave of Islamic radicalism that has now swept the 22 countries of Islam. Without Khomeini, it's hard for me to envision Bin Laden. That's why Reagan leaned toward Hussein, as a counterweight against Khomeini. (Remember the Iran-Iraq war?) In sum, Reagan was no "apologist for Saddam" any more than Churchill was an "apologist for Stalin" by allying with him against Hitler in WW-2.


Alexandria, Va.: It is just Wednesday and already we are hearing cries that the coverage of Reagan is bordering on excessive. What are your thoughts on this? I can honestly see both sides. As someone who admires Reagan I am glad he is getting such recognition, but I can easily see how those who disagreed with many of his policies, or simply feel lukewarm about the man, could find the reporting too much.

Dinesh D'Souza: Just as at an after-dinner toast one tends to be positive, so the general rule is that one shouldn't say bad things when a man dies. But I don't entirely agree with this rule when it comes to public figures and especially presidents. So yes, I would like to see a more lively debate over Reagan's policies. I believe this is the way he would have wanted it as well. Reagan was a controversial figure in his day. Believe me, historians will fight hard over his place in history. I'm not afraid of this debate because I think that at the end of it Reagan will come out very well.


Lyme, Conn.: I noticed even in discussing the debt under the Reagan Administration with other commentators, they always respond by talking about the deficit. Yes, the deficits under Reagan were closed and future budgets were balanced as the economy improved. Yet, the debt, which is the cumulative deficits carried over into the future, greatly expanded during the Reagan years. This shifted costs to us in the present and continues to us in the future. Now, deficits are not always bad if costs are necessary and it is more economical to spread payments into the future. Yet, I always wondered what Reagan thought about the size of the debt and whether he was concerned about them, or whether he was confidant subsequent times would be able to pay them. Do you know what his thinking was on the debt?

Dinesh D'Souza: Reagan hated both deficits and debt (which is nothing but the accumulation of deficits). But he believed that if you increase the size of the economy, then even if debt rises, it may fall RELATIVE TO THE SIZE OF THE ECONOMY. We have gone from a $3 trillion economy to a $12 trillion economy. The debt was, and remains, a problem. But we should keep it in perspective. And Reagan's conviction was that the reason for the continuing problem was the ceaseless appetite for Congress to spend the taxpayers money. "Giving taxpayer money and spending authority to legislators is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."


East Lansing, Mich.: Reagan said that he felt that the democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt left him, not that he left the Democratic party. For me one of the most memorable FDR quotes I saw on visiting the FDR memorial was "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." How did Reagan reconcile the growing discrepancy between rich and poor during his administration with the ideals of Franklin Roosevelt?

Dinesh D'Souza: Reagan believed he was for the New Deal but against the Great Society. He believed that Big Government had gotten out of hand--that it was usurping both the freedom and the responsibility of citizens for their own lives. The Reagan economy lifted many boats. The middle-class and the rich benefited. But a tide cannot lift boats that are not in the water. The poor, who are by and large outside the economy (eg single mothers who don't work, etc.), didn't benefit. How can a tax cut benefit you if you don't work and don't pay taxes? Reagan's policies did, however, benefit the poor in two ways. His defense policies made America safer and this obviously included poor people. Second, his policies helped accelerate the technological revolution (very few Americans had access to a computer in 1980 and there certainly weren't any cell phones or DVDs) and this over time has benefited rich and poor alike.


Burlington, Vt.: Dr. D'Souza,

Thanks for your time. One of the most understated factors of the Reagan presidency was what Neustadt would call his 'power to persuade.' What was it about Reagan and his relationship with a Democratic Congress that ultimately led to his legislative success?

Dinesh D'Souza: The ancients said, "When Cicero speaks, people say: What an intelligent man is Cicero. But when Demosthenes speaks, people say: Let us march against Philip!" Reagan was a Great Communicator, but he communicated in a way to generate convicton and action. His was substantive communication, different from the inspiring but essentially meaningless things that JFK said ("We will pay any price, bear any burden"). With Congress I think it was both Reagan's persuasive skill and his negotiating skills (learned when he was head of the Screen Actors Guild) that contributed to his legislative successes.


Fairfax, Va.: The Reagan Legacy, while certainly including a very strong policy of out-spending the Soviet Union, also included a long list of very poor judgement on his part. Selling arms to Saddam, Selling arms to Iran, never acknowleding the AIDS crisis as anything more than a "lifestyle" problem, appointing people like James Watt to office, blatant disregard for envrionmental policies - these are only a few that I can come up with off the top of my head.

It's been said many times that Reagan was very likeable man, and for that I give him credit for that and for standing up and being proud of being an American. The country needed that in the late 70's. However, his policies were disastrous to some; and it can be argued that even though the Soviet Union started disolving under his watch, he helped create a much larger enemy - Islamic terrorism focused on the US - by his support to the Mujahadden, Saddam, and Iran.

Your thoughts?

Dinesh D'Souza: You have a long list here, and I feel like the mosquito at the nudist colony--I don't know where to begin! Reagan was right to support the Muslims in Afghanistan and elsewhere who were fighting Soviet colonialism. Once the Soviets were gone some, like Bin Laden, may have concluded, "Capitalism, like communism, is a materialist doctrine. Now that communism is dead, capitalism is our deadly enemy. And now that the Soviet Union is gone, America has become the world's biggest problem." The solving of old problems sometimes gives rise to new problems. Recall how the end of World War II saw the rise of the Soviet Union! But we can't blame the West for defeating Hitler on the grounds that Stalin also ended up benefiting and growing stronger. So, too, let's be fair to Reagan. He didn't "help create...Islamic terrorism" as you suggest. The Islamic terrorists did.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Tell a child you're going to grow up and become a baseball announcer, movie star, President of the United States, and live past 90, and most kids would think that's a fairly good deal. I am fascinated in the slow drift towards politics that happened in Reagan's life. What were some early indications that Reagan would eventually head towards public policy?

Dinesh D'Souza: Reagan was political from his acting days. He fought the Communists in the Screen Actors Guild. His political beliefs were deepened when he worked for General Electric, and traveled the country speaking to working people. When Reagan first ran for political office he was 55--he had already lived a full life. Thus he came to politics fully formed. More, he was a man of ideas. He believed that ideas can change the world. Reagan was much more of an "intellectual" in this sense than most presidents.


Saginaw, Mich.: Whether one was a supporter or opponent of Reagan, each can agree that people seemed to love him or hate him. Is this the character of a great president? I do not expect presidents to try to coddle to every special interest. I do expect them to try to make even opponents feel as if they are part of the effort of what they are trying to do. Reagan failed in this respect. Excepting our current president, I do not think among Republican presidents or presidential candidates there has been as much a divisive person as Reagan since Nixon.

Dinesh D'Souza: Sometimes the country has to make a fundamental choice of which direction to take. Keep slavery or outlaw it? Lincoln couldn't not help being divisive because the nation was at a crossroads. Similarly Reagan wanted to make a real change in the country and in the world. He wanted the entrepreneur, not the bureaucrat, to define the American dream. In this respect he was repudiating the JFK ideal which held that if you are young and idealistic, join the Peace Corps! Reagan's view: If you are young and idealistic, join the Marines! Reagan also wanted to roll back Soviet Communism while the "peace movement" wanted to accommodate the Soviets and have "nuclear freeze." I don't recall Reagan even being nasty or demeaning toward his opponents: he simply outwitted and outperformed them! So yes, they are angry because they lost and because they couldn't get him (although during the Iran-Contra scandal, they certainly tried). Nixon was divisive in a different way--he had a character problem. Reagan didn't. His was the healthy division that democracies sometimes impose on their citizens when fundamental choices have to be made.


Boston, Mass.: Someone asked you about Reagan's response to AIDS and you ignored that part of the question. Why?

Dinesh D'Souza: AIDS was first discovered in the 1980s. At first very little was known about it. All we knew was that lots of homosexuals were getting AIDS, and that the homosexual activists were insisting that homosexuality had nothing to do with AIDS! The gay activists browbeat the media into saying that "AIDS is an equal-opportunity killer." There was a real effort to frighten the general population, partly in order to push condoms and other "safe sex" programs. Some on the right urged a quarantine of AIDS victims because this is what was gone in past epidemics. Reagan cautiously waited until more was known about all this. He didn't endorse either the "equal opportunity" rhetoric nor the "quarantine" rhetoric, and both turned out to be wrong. AIDS is not a "gay disease" but homosexual sex is the most common means of transmitting AIDS. And we have also learned that quarantines are unnecessary because AIDS cannot be casually transmitted as was originally feared. Contrary to popular myth, AIDS was lavishly funded during the 1980s: it got (and still gets) a great deal more money than other diseases that kill far more people.


Washington, D.C.: Without comitting an anachronistic fallacy -- knowing now that reagan and bush were both heavily involved with Iran-Contra, how do you rationalize this illicit behavior while still placing him in the top tiers of Presidents?

Dinesh D'Souza: "Iran-Contra" has three elements. 1) Trading arms for hostages in Iran. Reagan did this to get the hostage back. It was an arguable measure, but entirely legal, and certainly well motivated. 2) Supporting the Nicaraguan contras. Reagan did this because he believed the US should support people fighting against Soviet oppression. Although controversial, this policy was in my view completely justifiable. 3) The diversion of funds from Iran to Nicaragua. I don't think Reagan knew about this. There is certainly NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER that he approved this. Probably Bill Casey the CIA director and John Poindexter the National Security Advisor cooked up this scheme. Reagan bears some responsibility for (3) because it occurred under his watch. But let's not base negative judgments on "facts" that simply aren't facts, only suppositions or unfounded allegations.


Syracuse, N.Y.: When 200 of our boys were killed in the Lebanon bombing, Reagan withdrew troops. Why didn't he act aggressively and decisively militarily toward this new enemy of ours, the Jihad. He could have saved us from where we are now in Iraq.

Dinesh D'Souza: In Reagan's time the great crisis was the nuclear threat and the Soviet Union. He focused on that because a leader--even a president--can't change the world in 15 ways. He can change in in 2, maybe 3, ways. Most presidents leave no impact whatever on history. (Name one thing that Clinton did that changed American policy? Don't say health care reform, because that failed. Don't say welfare reform, because the GOP Congress did that and Clinton reluctantly went along.) So Reagan chose his battles: lower taxes, fight inflation, support the march of democracy around the world, end the evil empire. Yes, it would have been nice for him also to take on emerging jihad, AIDS, immigration, and so on. But let's give the guy credit for what he did, because so few presidents have accomplished even a fraction of what he did.


Dinesh D'Souza: Reagan is dead, but Reaganism is very much alive. My book "Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordianry Leader" tries to answer the questions I raised at the outset: how did this ordinary guy from the Midwest go on to achieve such extraordinary things? Or did they all happen by accident? (The Soviets just collapsed, the economy just revived, inflation just stopped, the technological revolution just happened.) I show that Reagan had a large role in these great events. The debate over his place in history is just beginning, but my book is aimed at providing an informed first draft. I've enjoyed the discussion, and regret I was not able to get to all the questions.


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