When Ronald Reagan reached the peroration of his speech accepting the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, he did not quote Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower or other gods in the GOP pantheon.
To the astonishment and dismay of many listeners, he cited Franklin D. Roosevelt, architect of the modern Democratic Party, paragraph after paragraph.
Reagan called for fulfillment of FDR's promise, and The New York Times' lead editorial the next morning bore the arresting headline, "Franklin Delano Reagan."
In the 1984 campaign, Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale frequently expressed outrage about Reagan's citation of Roosevelt and other Democratic political heroes.
Even though Reagan's 20-year career in national politics has been primarily a campaign against FDR's New Deal and what it stands for, Reagan's expropriation of FDR is not as outrageous as it may seem.
The office of the presidency, wielded so skillfully by Reagan for the most part in his first term, is the creation of Franklin Roosevelt. He and Reagan, the eighth man to follow the only president elected four times, share several attributes and, like FDR's other successors, Reagan is measured in many ways by how he compares with Roosevelt.
Until the last days of Lyndon B. Johnson's term, each presidency since Roosevelt's was a milestone in confirming and expanding the powers of the modern American presidency, although each president brought different priorities to the office reflecting his historical circumstances.
Harry S Truman, like Andrew Johnson 80 years before him, had to wrestle with difficult postwar problems bequeathed him and under the shadow of an almost godlike predecessor.
Eisenhower sought to restore calm after the turmoil of the previous 20 years. John F. Kennedy wanted to rouse the nation out of what he considered its 1950s torpor. Johnson wanted to establish continuity in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, complete the New Deal agenda and outdo his political idol, FDR, in the process.
Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter conducted themselves as plain citizen presidents in reaction to the so-called "imperial presidency" that grew with Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and the Watergate scandal.
Reagan's presidency represents the only attempt to break with history, to reduce the growth and scope of the federal government and to cut back the welfare state without undoing it, the threat of which was instrumental in Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater's landslide loss to Johnson in 1964.
Consequently, one of the most delicious paradoxes in American politics is that Reagan, through force of personality and his political talents, has restored some of the luster and popularity of the presidency, possibly for the benefit of a Democrat in 1989.
"We went through a period, from late Nixon on, with the growing feeling that there had been a diminution of the presidency and that the legislative was superseding it," said Clark Clifford, adviser to every Democratic president since Roosevelt. "Reagan has quieted that and, while I don't approve of his major domestic and foreign policies, I think that's good for the country."
Part of this paradox is that, though opinion polls show that a majority of respondents do not think that Reagan is in control of his White House operation, they think that this is fine and credit him above all else with being a strong leader.
There are several reasons for this, including:
* People perceive Reagan as a president capable of making things happen, who can push the Congress around a bit, control the bureaucracy and stand up to the Soviet Union.
* Many people see Reagan's disengagement from details of government and his administration as showing not abdication of leadership but rather, as with Eisenhower, the ability to delegate responsibility for details to subordinates.
"He's remarkable. He's run so long and given The Speech so many times that we knew what he wanted to do," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, a scholar of politics and the presidency. "He's easy to follow in a management sense because he's given direction and guidelines and his people knew what he wanted without having specifically talked with him. The trouble came with the appointment of ideologues who got fractious and started quibbling over the Holy Grail."
* Luck: an oil glut instead of embargo, economic recovery and dwindling inflation in the two years before his reelection.
* Reagan and the course of history crossed paths. The country moved to the right in the post-New Deal era and elected him 16 years after it rejected Goldwater. Reagan's public support for the Arizona senator's ideas and campaign made Reagan a national political figure. Assassinations, a divisive war and a succession of failed presidencies left the country eager for a president to succeed.
Roosevelt, elected at a time of economic depression and despair, had a similar rendezvous with destiny, and there are other similarities.
Roosevelt also was buoyant, ebullient and optimistic. Like Reagan, he was a superb communicator who understood the use of symbolism and knew he had to be an actor to have his programs enacted.
Both personalized the office, and Reagan, like Roosevelt, is an activist president, although one used his power to expand the federal government enormously while the other has attempted to contract it.
From the founding of the Republic until 1933, Congress was the dominant branch of government, except for the Civil War years when Lincoln made extraordinary use of his war powers to emancipate slaves and suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Congress initiated legislation and the federal budget.
Woodrow Wilson worked only three or four hours a day and enjoyed much time with his family, according to the White House chief usher at the time, while Calvin Coolidge reportedly averaged 11 hours of sleep a night. Roosevelt, according to Hess, inherited a White House staff of 37, including three major secretaries -- for press, appointments and correspondence. But, under the pressure of fighting the Great Depression and World War II, he revolutionized the office.
The modern presidency dates to 1939 when Congress created the Executive Office of the President as the result of a study commissioned by Roosevelt after his 1936 reelection. The legislation was delayed as a result of the controversy over his scheme to "pack" the Supreme Court. In addition to expanding the number of the president's White House aides, this act transferred the Bureau of the Budget from the Treasury Department to the White House, in effect creating the Executive Office.
"Prior to 1939, the president had to rely on Cabinet officers as economic advisers and congressional liaison," said Thomas E. Cronin of Colorado College, a student of the presidency. "Rexford Tugwell [of FDR's original "brain trust"] was assistant secretary of agriculture, and he had to walk over to the White House from the Agriculture Department several times a day to meet with Roosevelt."
As assistant secretary of the Navy for nearly eight years before and during World War I, Roosevelt ran the Navy Department and functioned in effect as a senior presidential adviser to Wilson, whose staff consisted of three secretaries and a press secretary, Cronin said. Unlike Reagan, Roosevelt had an intimate knowledge of how Washington and the White House worked when he came to the White House.
In the half-century since Roosevelt's election, the White House staff has grown to more than 600 persons, the Executive Office from zero to thousands, and initiatives on budget and legislative proposals have swung to the White House.
Under Truman, the Council of Economic Advisers, National Security Council and Defense Department were added. This expansion of the presidency was legitimized by Herbert C. Hoover, whose study commission in 1949 recommended additional powers and staffing of the office.
The United States also emerged as a global power, with the president often acting as its chief diplomat and negotiator.
"We had followed [President George] Washington's dictum about not becoming entangled in foreign involvements," Clifford said. "After World War II, Truman brought the United States into the world with the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance and the Truman Doctrine in Greece and Turkey, which threw down the gauntlet on Soviet expansion. It was a great contribution to peace."
Eisenhower initially was viewed with suspicion by many Republicans who considered him Roosevelt's creation, although he appeared untouched by the excitement and emotions of the New Deal, according to Prof. William E. Leuchtenburg of the University of North Carolina. It was as though Eisenhower's 40 years of military service were a sort of political limbo that left his early political beliefs intact.
Nevertheless, Eisenhower continued expanding the office, including in Cabinet meetings the U.N. ambassador, director of the Budget Bureau (now Office of Management and Budget) and White House chief of staff.
Reflecting his military experience, he also created a more formal staff system, establishing a Cabinet secretariat, the post of special assistant for national security affairs and National Security Council committees for administration, planning and projects. His elaborate staff system tended to insulate him from errors and criticism, as is the case with Reagan.
Kennedy, like Eisenhower, appeared relatively untouched by pro-New Deal sentiments, partly because of the insulation afforded by his father's wealth, even though Joseph Kennedy was a major figure in the New Deal as first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But he admired Roosevelt's style and emphasis on problem-solving and quickly learned during his quest for the nomination in 1960 that FDR still had a powerful hold on emotions in the Democratic Party.
Kennedy loosened Eisenhower's formal staff structure, created task forces for specific problems and concentrated power in his top White House aides. His was a personal presidency, a sort of "royal court," according to Leuchtenburg. But his personal popularity did not translate into impressive legislative achievements in his brief presidency.
Johnson, well-schooled in the ways of Congress, brought to the office enormous skills in dealing on Capitol Hill and effectively lobbied his Great Society domestic programs and Vietnam war appropriations through the legislative maze. But, in Hess' words, "his legislator's mindset, when applied to grave questions of world security, produced disaster." As a result of the Vietnam war and Watergate under Nixon, regard for the presidency waned.
Nixon was bedeviled by three demons: the news media, Congress and the bureaucracy. He expanded the presidency to include the Council for Urban Affairs and the Council on Environmental Quality and, in the persons of Henry A. Kissinger, James R. Schlesinger, Arthur Burns, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others, probably had more academics and intellectuals working for him than did any of his predecessors.
His obsession with the bureaucracy led him to increase the White House staff greatly to enable him to control Cabinet departments, but, with his forced resignation, the effectiveness of this was never tested.
"Joe Califano had a staff of five when he was Johnson's chief domestic aide working on the Great Society programs," recalled Stuart Eizenstat, who held the same post under Carter. "I had 30, and that was scaled back considerably from Nixon's staff."
Ford, an appointed president, is credited with healing the trauma of Watergate, although his presidency was tainted by his pardon of Nixon, according to Prof. James MacGregor Burns of Williams College.
Carter had several impressive achievements: the Camp David agreements on Middle East strife, the Panama Canal treaties, the quest for a coherent energy policy, appointments of blacks and women to high government posts and such attempts to exert moral leadership as his emphasis on human rights in foreign affairs. But he could not muster political support for his programs.
"He had high ideals, but never a means to the end," Burns said. "His idealism and engineering never got within speaking distance."
The popularity of the presidency reached a peak with Kennedy, whose approval rating in the Gallup Poll averaged 65 percent, and Eisenhower, whose average was 60 percent. Because of Johnson and Nixon, the averages dropped. Ford and Carter were in the high 40s and Reagan averages about 50 percent, although he is the only president whose popularity has increased in his fourth year, according to Cronin.
Prof. Theodore Lowi of Cornell University says the president, whoever he is, is doomed to be judged a failure.
"We have made expectations so high that just modest successes are seen as failures," he said. "Reagan will fall victim to unfulfilled expectations and disappointments. His low ratings on specific issues are the basis for blaming him, probably sooner rather than later. He had to manipulate foreign policy to keep his ratings up in the first term . . . and that will be true in the second term."
Reagan's presidency is historic in that he has changed the terms of the political debate. His substantive place in history is what his second term will determine.