This Sunday, February 6, 2011, will mark the 100th birthday of the late U.S President, Ronald W. Reagan. In addition to serving as the 40th President of the United States (1981-89), Reagan also served as the 33rd Governor of California (1967-75). He enjoyed a successful career as an actor before coming into office, served in the U. S military during the Second World War, and survived an assassination attempt in March 1981. In honor of his life, we offer the following excerpt from Michael Schaller’s book, Ronald Reagan.
During his eight years as president, and especially after, supporters praised Reagan as a transformative leader who, like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, used his power to alter fundamentally the nation’s direction. Even many Americans who disliked Reagan’s policies agreed that he might well be the most influential president since Roosevelt, turning the nation away from many of the “big government” programs initiated during the New Deal. Reagan received widespread praise for restoring national pride and an unembarrassed muscular patriotism that had lapsed after the debacles of the Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandals, and the economic reversals of the 1970s.
Democratic Party leaders acknowledged Reagan’s political skill but disparaged his ideas and programs. Clark Clifford, an influential power broker since 1948, called Reagan an “amiable dunce.” Democratic Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill put it more gently. Questioning Reagan’s understanding of his own administration’s policies, O’Neill described him as better suited to be a ceremonial “king” than a president.
Biographer Gary Wills explained Reagan’s self-assurance and determination in another way. Wills described Reagan as the real-life embodiment of the nearsighted Mr. Magoo. Like the cheerful cartoon character whose myopia prevented him from seeing anything either unpleasant or that did not conform to his mental map, Reagan simply plowed forward, oblivious to external realities.
Satirist Phil Hartman, part of the Saturday Night Live television ensemble, captured Reagan’s several sides in a 1987 skit. Hartman impersonated a silver-tongued but airheaded president sleepwalking through “photo ops” such as honoring Girl Scout cookie captain of the year. But when the photographers leave, Reagan morphs into a hard-charging executive, telling aides exactly how to supply weapons secretly to anticommunist guerrillas, performing complex currency calculations in his head, and even taking a call apparently from Saddam Hussein in Baghdad (conducted in Arabic) that results, Reagan boasts, in a “lucrative deal with the Iraqis.”
Yet these varied portrayals failed to account for the fact that throughout his career as an actor, governor, and president, most Americans felt comfortable with Reagan. They saw him not as a fool or an extremist but as something of an everyman who shared many of their hopes and fears. Critics who ridiculed his ignorance of complex policy issues misunderstood the source of his appeal, according to journalist Bill Moyers. “We didn’t elect this guy because he knows how many barrels of oil are in Alaska,” Moyers remarked in 1981. “We elected him because we want to feel good.”
Reagan’s presidency coincided with major changes in the economy, the erosion of support for liberalism and big government, and a crisis inside the Soviet Union that led to its demise. He shifted the language and content of American politics in a markedly conservative direction (such as replacing the term citizen with taxpayer and making taxes and regulations sound like dirty words). He also brought many religious, intellectual, social, and economic conservatives into the nation’s political mainstream.
Historians remain divided about how successful Reagan’s programs were in fostering domestic recovery or changing the trajectory of the Cold War. Did tax cuts and deregulation actually restore economic growth? If so, were there hidden costs? Did a president who preached frugality but incurred massive indebtedness symbolize hope or hypocrisy? Were the benefits of covert intervention in Afghanistan worth the price of fostering a powerful anti-Western Islamist movement? Did Reagan’s strident anticommunism and the surge in defense spending change Soviet behavior or merely coincide with events over which he had little control? How did Reagan affect the nation’s long-term political culture?
Reagan spent thirty years in show business before entering politics. Responding to those who dismissed him as “just” as actor, Reagan told a journalist near the end of his presidency, “there have been times in this office when I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.” He recognized that in an age of instant visual communication, the ceremonial presidency had as much significance as the substance of policy making. Time magazine made this point when it described the ceremony on July 4, 1986 during which he unveiled a refurbished Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Here was a 75-year-old man “hitting home runs…with triumphant…ease that is astonishing and even mysterious.” This president, in Time’s words, was a “magician who carries a bright, ideal America like a holograph in his mind and projects its image in the air.” Reagan laughed off those who labeled him the “Great Communicator,” but in his last formal address as president in January 1989 insisted that he had “communicated great things…the rediscovery of our values and common sense.” In rallying the American people to “change a nation…instead we changed a world.”
Michael Schaller is the Regents Professor of History at the University of Arizona. He has published numerous books about 20th-century American political history and foreign policy, the most recent of which is Ronald Reagan.