We are standing in the vestibule of President Ronald Reagan's last year at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and we hear sobbing all around. The left is petulant. The right is indignant. Moderates hardly know what to think. Thus does Washington treat one of the two or three most successful presidents of this century. The local sages are perfectionists -- they are philosophers adhering to the highest standards, or perhaps they are ignoramuses with no sense of proportion. Judge for yourself.
Yet remember, if you will, that the depressed spirits who now notify us of Ronald Reagan's deficiencies sound very much like the morose chorus bewailing him 14 years ago as he was ending his second term in the California governor's mansion. The historically minded will recall that back then all left-wingers at large in the Golden State despaired of Gov. Reagan as a reactionary monstrosity, and many indigenous right-wingers lamented his faintheartedness. Such controversy notwithstanding, his two terms as governor sufficiently withstood scrutiny to allow him to run for the presidency and eventually win when others thought him a has-been. Now, does anyone other than a fanatic believe that these seven years of American history compare unfavorably with any other seven-year stretch in our century in terms of peace and prosperity?
Still, while he has held office the wails and sobs have droned on, rising and subsiding through America's longest period of mourning since the Civil War and Reconstruction. In studying this period historians are going to face a tricky problem, to wit: how to explain the opinion-makers' consensus that America was in a dreadful mess led by a dolt when most data signified prosperity and peace under the presidency of a gifted pol.
For seven years the president has been depicted as a bungler. Heinous wrongs were constantly being uncovered, and there were episodic forecasts of recession, inflation and conflict with the Soviet Union. Yet the bungler presided over a period in which the misery index dropped from 20 to 11.
Right now the gloom-fetchers are again forecasting disaster, particularly in the economic realm, yet the disaster is again late in arriving. We were supposed to have had weak holiday sales. It appears that we did not, yet the gloom-fetchers grumble anyway. That they are the same Jeremiahs who wailed through what is now America's longest period of peacetime recovery renders them neither doubtful of their powers of prophecy nor dubious to their colleagues. Certainly, some day the recovery will end. Then, so they think, they will be vindicated. Historians may think otherwise.
Historians are going to have to account for the achievements of this amazing presidential bungler. If he did not actually reverse government's growth, he is the first president since Eisenhower to slow it. He cut taxes back from record peacetime highs to their traditional postwar level of GNP. He made significant steps in deregulation. He is the first president to achieve nuclear weapons reductions, having stood by his 1981 zero-zero proposal despite the hoots from the chorus. He rescued the country from its post-Vietnam irresolution and came to the aid of anticommunists in Afghanistan, Angola, Grenada and Nicaragua. Furthermore he has presided over these monotonous months of economic growth and low inflation. Finally, as Fred Barnes, ever the insightful Washington observer, notes: Ronald Reagan has changed the citizenry's view of government's role in American life.
For seven years the gloom-fetchers have reproached him for his ideological extremism, then for being less ideological than he claimed, then for his Teflon. For a brief moment he was the mysterious charmer, loved by the people. Finally with Iran-contra he was an international embarrassment, and now he is a Warren Gamaliel Harding to the gloomy sages and a president with over a 60 percent approval rating to voters. How many other presidents in this century can claim to equal these achievements despite cancer and an assassin's bullet? Ronald Reagan may not be the greatest president of the century, but he has performed more competently in his role than the wailing sages have in theirs.