Of all the comparisons between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush last week, probably the most intriguing -- and politically relevant -- pivots on their style of leadership.
In some ways, the two men clearly converge. Reagan tended, like Bush, to avoid details and focus on big-picture goals. Reagan, again like Bush, favored stark, often religiously infused language that rattled diplomatic sensibilities (especially in Europe) but clarified choices.
Bush alluded to that similarity during the most overtly political passage of his eulogy for Reagan on Friday. “When he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name,” the president declared.
Bush was referring to Reagan’s labeling of the former Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” But few listeners are likely to have missed the implications for Bush’s own efforts to define the war against Islamic terrorism as a confrontation between good and evil. With that comparison, Bush linked Reagan’s strategy during the waning years of the Cold War to his approach during this new “twilight struggle.”
It’s here that the dispute over Reagan’s legacy begins. Bush supporters point to Reagan’s rhetorical clarity and ideological consistency as the keys to his success. Reagan, they argue, showed that a crucial -- perhaps the crucial -- power of the president is establishing bright-line goals and shifting the terms of debate at home and around the world.
In that respect, Bush allies believe he is replicating Reagan. Reagan steered America, and the world, from coexisting with communism to confronting it (albeit mostly by nonmilitary means). Bush admirers believe he is doing the same in forcing the world to confront Islamic terrorists. As in Reagan’s day, they see the squeals of protest here and in Europe as signs of Bush’s success in shattering conventional wisdom and compelling new thinking.
“I’ve been going back and reading quotes about Ronald Reagan, and these arguments were exactly the same,” said one Republican strategist. “People said he was the most rigidly ideological president ever. There was as much acrimony in Europe toward Ronald Reagan, who was viewed as a nuclear cowboy, as there is toward Bush.”
But Bush critics point to an aspect of Reagan’s legacy that received far less attention last week than his rhetorical constancy: his operational flexibility on several major issues.
Although Reagan never abandoned his criticism of “big government,” he did agree to significantly raise taxes one year after his 1981 tax cuts helped open the largest federal deficits ever.
And for all his denunciations of the Soviet Union, Reagan ultimately engaged in historic, high-stakes negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
In all these ways, Bush’s critics argue that Reagan demonstrated a more sophisticated outlook and a greater willingness to transcend his ideology than conventional wisdom assumes. They see Bush failing to meet Reagan’s standard by implementing more tax cuts amid massive deficits and invading Iraq despite broad international opposition.
One of those ardently pressing that argument is Jack F. Matlock Jr., a retired Foreign Service officer who joined in a statement by former diplomatic and military officials, expected to be released Wednesday, arguing that Bush’s foreign policy has damaged America’s security and its standing abroad.
Matlock held a series of high-level diplomatic positions under Reagan. He was senior director for Europe and the Soviet Union on the National Security Council staff. He helped draft much of Reagan’s key correspondence with Gorbachev and said he portrayed Gorbachev in planning sessions for the momentous summits Reagan held with the Soviet leader.
Reagan ultimately named Matlock ambassador to the Soviet Union, a position he maintained through the closing days of the Cold War under Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush.
Matlock bristles at the comparisons between the younger Bush and Reagan. “This president seems to be remarkably uncurious,” Matlock said. “He is a poor listener, it would seem.”
Matlock alluded to the accounts in Bob Woodward’s book “Plan of Attack” that Bush never directly asked either his own father or Secretary of State Colin L. Powell for their opinions before invading Iraq.
“I contrast this very much with Reagan, who kept a relatively open mind,” Matlock continued. “He always was happy to listen. He consulted with many people, including people he didn’t necessarily agree with, and he took it seriously. Reagan knew what he didn’t know, and he liked to be educated about it. He was anything but arrogant, and he didn’t close out things.”
This might be an interesting academic debate, but it points to a central dynamic in Bush’s race for reelection against Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Polls and conversations with likely voters suggest that this race is turning to an unusual degree not only on assessments of Bush’s goals but on judgments about the single-minded way he pursues them.
The president’s supporters see him as resolute and decisive and Kerry as opportunistic and vacillating. Kerry’s supporters view him as flexible and pragmatic and Bush as dogmatic and narrow-minded.
In fact, each man displays some of the qualities mostly ascribed to the other: Bush, for instance, has adjusted course on the Iraq occupation more than expected. Yet the two do represent very different points on the continuum between leaders who try to plow through the wall and those who search for ways around it.
Reagan’s real lesson is that every successful president must do both. He was sometimes stubborn and sometimes so flexible that conservative allies accused him of flip-flopping. He liked to look over the horizon, but he also knew enough to come in out of the rain. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for both in a president.
Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.