Pluses and Minuses

Reagan left a tangled legacy.

He presided over a historic agreement to ban intermediate range nuclear missiles with the Soviet Union, which he had reviled as an "evil empire." But he also presided over a debacle in Lebanon with uncounted victims, including 241 U.S. troops, mostly Marines; and he presided over the Iran-Contra affair, a scandal that severely damaged his administration.

Reagan's tenure produced lower inflation, interest rates and unemployment. But his term also saw a busted budget and record deficits, which made America a net importer and tripled the national debt. It "mortgaged much of our future vitality," said conservative columnist George F. Will. Nearly 15 years passed before the nation was able to post a surplus.

The president himself was a man of striking contradictions, say Jane Mayer, a New Yorker magazine staff writer, and Doyle McManus, the Times' Washington bureau chief, in their book, "Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988." He was a gifted leader, they write, but he could be detached and indecisive. He was an overwhelmingly popular politician, they say, but he could be shy and intensely private and kept a personal distance from almost everyone except his wife, Nancy.

"On balance, Reagan was a strong man, but an extraordinarily weak manager," biographer Cannon said in his book "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime." He restored public confidence in the presidency, Cannon wrote, "without mastering the difficult art of wielding presidential power." Reagan often said: "Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem." In fact, Cannon said, "Reagan thought so little of government that he did not think enough about it." As a result, he treated the presidency with a hands-off style of management that tested the abilities of those charged to run the executive branch, sometimes with unhappy results.

But he also could be a very personal president. He shared jellybeans from a jar in the Oval Office. A recent collection, "Reagan: A Life in Letters," revealed that he hand-wrote an astonishing assortment of notes to friends, adversaries, world leaders and plain folks, from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to a seventh-grader who requested federal help because his mother had declared his bedroom a disaster area. Reagan's letters asked whether governments truly reflected the needs of their people, told of his imaginings about a ballistic missile defense system and suggested, with a fatherly chuckle, that the youngster volunteer to clean up his room himself.

Many Americans saw in him things they also wanted to believe about themselves, said cultural historian Garry Wills, in his book "Reagan's America: Innocents at Home." They were convinced, Wills wrote, that both he and they were hopeful and independent, strong and God-fearing, as well as destined to be extraordinary. They shaped their faith in him and in themselves to accommodate any uncomfortable realities, Wills said, and they ignored his inconsistencies.

This helped to shield Reagan from political disapproval. Confounding opponents, he seemed at times to be immune to controversy. "The Teflon-coated presidency," complained former Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), when criticisms would not take hold, but slipped off instead like grease on a nonstick frying pan.

Reagan was protected, too, by his style. He did not turn political foes into personal enemies. House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, an earthy populist from Boston who championed liberal causes with a fervor to match Reagan's devotion to conservative crusades, often went from Capitol Hill down to the White House at the end of the day for a quiet chat between two Irish pols.

"There's just something about the guy that people like," O'Neill once explained to the Washington Post. "They're rooting for him, and of course they're rooting for him because we haven't had any presidential successes for years — Kennedy killed, Johnson with Vietnam, Nixon with Watergate, Ford, Carter and all the rest." O'Neill remembered how Reagan would say to him, "Tip, you and I are political enemies only until 6 o'clock. It's 4 o'clock now. Can we pretend that it's 6 o'clock?"

Finally, Reagan was sustained by his sense of humor, which he often exercised in times of adversity. When a would-be assassin gunned him down outside a Washington hotel during the third month of his presidency, he quipped to a doctor laboring to save his life: "I hope you're a Republican."

As in "win one for the Gipper," when Reagan did not have a good line of his own, he borrowed one from a movie in which he had appeared, or which he especially liked. To Reagan, the presidency was often the stage for a well-rehearsed script. He tapped the talents of a stable of writers, including the eloquent Peggy Noonan.

On the 40th anniversary of D-day, she provided his tribute on the palisades of Normandy to American veterans who had flown to France for the occasion. "These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc," he intoned, his delivery a marvel of dramatic narrative and pauses at the punch lines. "These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped win a war."

Veterans cried, said the Washington Post, adding that he had moved "even reporters and Democrats to tears."

His writers knew history. Left to himself, Reagan sometimes garbled it. This mattered little, however, because he had perfect pitch for its music. "Reagan would embody great chunks of the American experience, become deeply involved with them emotionally, while having only the haziest notion of what really occurred," Wills says. "He had a skill for striking 'historical' attitudes combined with a striking lack of historical attention."

What he was doing was acting, but it served him well, even in times of trouble. Alexander M. Haig caused a stir, for example, by resigning abruptly as secretary of state after battling the White House staff and embarrassing the administration with an emotional pronouncement following the assassination attempt that "I am in control here."

As Reagan prepared to answer questions from reporters about Haig's departure, he regaled his aides with jokes. Chief of Staff James A. Baker cautioned against levity at serious moments.

"Don't worry, Jim," Reagan replied. "I'll play it somber."