It was the evening of July 17, 1980. A group of friends had gathered at my apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side to watch Ronald Reagan's acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention.
There was not a Reagan supporter in the house, and there were occasional catcalls as he spoke. I was mostly silent until he finished and then said: "The guy's going to win."
In truth, my view was to shift back and forth as the campaign went on. But at that moment, I was in awe of a gift of the Gipper's that was insufficiently appreciated among his conservative devotees: Reagan had the New Deal bred in his bones and could talk to Democrats like a Democrat, and in a way no Republican has matched since.
Reagan's singular political achievement was to steal the optimism associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt from the Democratic Party. It took Bill Clinton, another political genius, to steal it back, but that came 12 years later. President Jimmy Carter was and is a good man, but he was a perfect foil for Reagan in 1980. When Carter spoke, what stuck were his descriptions of the depth and severity of the problems facing the country. What stuck when Reagan spoke was his insistence that the troubles could be licked.
"Ours are not problems of abstract economic theory," Reagan said that night. Rather, they were "problems of flesh and blood; problems that cause pain and destroy the fiber of real people who should not suffer the further indignity of being told by the government that it is all somehow their fault." You could almost hear Roosevelt talking about the "forgotten Americans."
Americans, "bound together in that community of shared values of family, work, neighborhood, peace and freedom," were "concerned, yes, but not frightened. They are disturbed, but not dismayed." And then came the ultimate tribute to the Roosevelt legacy from a man who once described himself as a "near hopeless hemophiliac liberal." Roosevelt, Reagan said, "told the generation of the Great Depression that it had a 'rendezvous with destiny.' I believe that this generation of Americans today has a rendezvous with destiny." And it did.
Reagan's victory in 1980 was not a magic trick, the conjuring of brilliant rhetoric. Hard times mattered greatly, but so did Reagan's understanding that he was the product and leader of a political movement. In the 16 years after Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964, that movement turned itself into a mighty electoral force through hard work, organizing, persuasion -- and more hard work. If Reagan could learn from Roosevelt, then surely liberals can take some tips from the Gipper about optimism and the need to do the patient work of creating a movement that is larger than the sum of its parts.
And today's conservatives might usefully note that although Reagan rose to power through ideological politics, he was not an ideologue. When it turned out that the 1981 tax cuts he signed were too big, Reagan heeded Sen. Bob Dole's advice and agreed to some tax increases that he insisted on calling "revenue enhancers." And Reagan the Cold Warrior saw more clearly than almost any other world leader -- Margaret Thatcher was another -- that the new Soviet boss Mikhail Gorbachev was, as Reagan put it, "a serious man seeking serious reform."
Winning the Cold War was thus a four-step process. It began with the containment policies of Truman and Eisenhower. After Vietnam, Jimmy Carter's human rights policies helped restore the United States' moral standing. Reagan's toughness and confidence played a role (particularly on the matter of placing new missiles in Europe). But the end of the Soviet Union was hastened because Ronald Reagan was flexible enough to accept the idea that even the "evil empire" could change.
It is thus paradoxical that liberals may join in building up Reagan's legacy because they now see him as positively moderate and hugely flexible in comparison with the current White House occupant. In that process, Reagan's failures should not be overlooked, among them the disaster in Lebanon, the Iran-contra scandal and the deficits that Reagan insisted would never appear.
But like most effective presidents, Reagan understood that he was inheriting a past whose best moments were created by the opposition party no less than by his own. Reagan could be tough, but he did not go for divisiveness, intolerance or nastiness. He ran for reelection as the sunny guy who brought us "Morning in America." Reagan's critics made fun of that ad. In today's climate, its spirit would come as a great relief.