Speaking: Of the Proper Place for Reagan’s Presidency in U.S. History

<i> Kevin Phillips is publisher of American Political Report and Business & Public Affairs Fortnightly</i>

Well, Ronald Reagan is not going to be right up there in the history books with Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and the rest of America’s “near-great” Presidents, as some historians thought he might be back in 1985-86. That much we can safely say from the Iran- contra arms debacle and its fallout. Even scandal-subsidence from here on won’t restore the patina--some would say the mythology--of the Reagan presidency.

No serious observer ever thought that an actor from Hollywood would make it into the first tier along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt. What now seems far-fetched is earlier speculation that he might join the six or eight of the second-tier. He won’t. Yet it’s also a mistake to consign Reagan to the bottom tier. He’s not a Millard Fillmore or a Warren G. Harding. His presidency has been too different--and initially too successful--to be sloughed off. Consider these dimensions:

The First Performing Presidency: The real milestones in Reagan’s political career are not diplomatic or programmatic deeds but speeches. His big break into politics came with a speech--the famous one for Barry M. Goldwater in 1964. He saved his 1980 nomination just before the New Hampshire primary with a well-delivered, indignant ad lib--"I paid for this microphone, Mr. Breen.” And since then, he’s used speeches a1852055663on U.S. troops in Lebanon; during 1984’s last debate with Walter F. Mondale, when he blew away the question of his own age and competence by saying he wouldn’t raise the issue of Mondale’s youth and inexperience; in 1986, when his follow-up speech after the muddled U.S.-Soviet summit at Reykjavik turned it into a personal triumph. And to some extent, he did so again in his March 4 TV address accepting blame (but delivering no apology) for the Iran- contra affair.

This last performance by no means resolved his difficulties, but it did boost his ratings back into the 48%-52% range, staunching a potentially fatal erosion. Yet, this latest speech may have finally done what earlier addresses could not. Against the backdrop of his dismal Iran- contra failure as a strategist and manager, Reagan’s television ability is in the process of identifying him as essentially a performer. Thus the bifurcated reaction of many voters: “Of course, he can give a good speech. He’s an actor.”


Does this make him a historical laughingstock? Not at all. Reagan’s “Great Communicator” role served too well in the early 1980s, when he was able to sell basic changes such as a stronger defense, a tougher foreign policy and less reliance on big government. Had Reagan retired in 1984, history would have been obliged to rate him fairly high. But the second term crystallized the sparsity of his follow-up agenda and lack of technical expertise or managerial proficiency to backstop his performing skills. As a historical figure, he’s been shrinking. But no one should doubt that our first performing presidency will make the history books.

The Rise of Post-Conservatism: Reagan did not find Oliver L. North and company by himself. History lent a hand. U.S. conservatism has become a different brand of politics than that practiced by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 or even Richard M. Nixon in 1969. No longer pivoting on Establishment interests, the Reagan coalition has mixed in a large array of hitherto populist constituencies: Christian fundamentalists, lower-middle-class tax-revolt cadres, economic panacea-mongers of the sort last seen in 1930s California, the anti-abortion movement and New Right populist nationalists frustrated by a decade of overseas embarrassment.

In a 1982 book, “Post-Conservative America,” I wrote that Reagan personally bound all these insurgencies together in nostalgia politics partly to recreate the 1920s Coolidge era of tax cuts and laissez-faire economics and the 1950s Eisenhower era of U.S. world dominance. It didn’t look like a stable “New Majority” credo and coalition, and it hasn’t been. History is going to have to analyze Reagan’s regime less in traditional conservative terms than as America’s first post-conservative presidency. It’s a long way--and for the most part downhill--from Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton to North, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Arthur B. Laffer.

The Crypto-Parliamentary White House: Here’s another insufficiently appreciated Reagan claim on the history books. It’s ironic and significant, in the wake of Howard H. Baker Jr.'s appointment as White House chief of staff, that the Iran- contra scandal has picked up where Watergate left off: promoting a mild trend toward parliamentary practices in the U.S. political system. As periodic scandals aggravated the failings of the post-Vietnam presidency, jeopardized chief executives have been forced to move in crypto-parliamentary directions, at odds with previous U.S. political evolution. During Watergate, a vice president and then a President were forced to resign--two unprecedented developments. Also, for the first time, a vice president was appointed rather than elected--and the man Nixon chose (and who would replace him as president) was GOP leader of the House of Representatives, Gerald R. Ford. The logic? Ford could in congressional confirmation.

Since November, moreover, both the presidential resignation and the crypto-parliamentary precedents have turned out to be relevant. It was only a matter of weeks into the Iran- contra mess before the Des Moines Register polled Iowans on whether Reagan should resign (24% said yes). Since then, resignation scenarios have been quietly discussed in Washington power circles--although any Iran- contra taint on Vice President George Bush reduces the plausibility. More important, the President’s decision to appoint former Senate Majority Leader Baker marks the first time a former rival presidential contender or former party congressional leader--Baker is both --has been brought in as White House chief of staff. Relations between the White House and Capitol Hill are bound to take on a new dimension, perhaps even yielding modern U.S. history’s first prime minister. Former chief of staff Donald T. Regan may have been talked about as “prime minister,” but Baker fits the job description.

Will these trends continue in 1988? Possibly. Some Washington observers are beginning to paint Senate GOP Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) as the favorite for the 1988 Republican presidential nominee, despite Bush’s continuing lead in national polls. If so, that would be another first--and a further push toward parliamentary evolution. This might make sense, because the United States is the only major nation in the free world lacking a parliamentary mandate for executive-legislative branch collaboration. Perhaps that’s a luxury we can no longer afford.

Measuring Reagan’s place by traditional yardsticks could miss the point. The Great Communicator may not be a Great President, but he’s certainly been occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. during a historic period.