What Reagan knew

RICHARD REEVES is the author of "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination," published this month by Simon and Schuster.

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago today, on Jan. 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States. The former governor of California faced west, away from the front of the Capitol, and gave a most extraordinary inaugural address.

He touched on four simple themes, the ones he had been repeating for years, first as spokesman for the General Electric Co., then as governor of California and as the post-Goldwater icon of the conservative wing of the Republican Party: reducing taxes and budget deficits and thus reducing the power and size of the government; rebuilding the American military; confronting communism around the world; and renewing American pride and patriotism.

So, how did he do?

He blew his first goal. He reduced income taxes in an energetic first year, but those taxes and others immediately began creeping up again. Government kept growing, although spending shifted from domestic social programs to military spending, and the man who had made a career of attacking “tax and spend” Democrats invented a new kind of Republicanism that might be called “spend and borrow.”


But Reagan succeeded in other ways. He scrapped containment and detente and made the world believe it when he rejected the old Cold War strategies in favor of his own, which he articulated to his first national security advisor, Richard Allen: “I know you think I don’t have a strategy for dealing with communism, but I do: ‘We win! They lose!’ ”

And the old actor persuaded Americans to believe in themselves and in an imagined past, telling us we were better than other people, God’s chosen, citizens of a shining city on a hill. Simply speaking and speaking simply, Reagan had a gift for turning issues into emotions. In reality, he dumbed down America, persuading us to suspend belief by combining fact and fiction, persuading us to make politics and governance just another subsidiary of his old business -- entertainment.

Reagan, a stubborn and determined old man not greatly interested in learning anything new, instinctively understood the presidency in important ways that were derided and mocked by many of his contemporaries. He knew the job was not managing the government, it was leading the nation. He knew words could be more important than deeds -- and he was not ashamed of that. He knew the presidency was about trust and judgment, the way the man at the top handled the two or three big ones that came his way, usually unexpectedly. No one remembers Abraham Lincoln’s agricultural policy.

The greatest irony of the Reagan years, I would argue, is that it was widely believed, by his own staff among others, that the old man was being managed and manipulated by a savvy cadre of younger men and an ambitious wife. In fact, he hardly knew the names of his staff, the young men he called “fellas.” They were pretty much interchangeable to him. His most talented and effective assistant, James A. Baker III, put it this way: “He treated us all the same, as hired help.”

He seemed disengaged because he did not care about most of what the government did or the press reported. In the end, it seemed that he had come to Washington with a six-year script for an eight-year presidency. He appeared to be dead in the water after his reckless blundering in the Middle East set the United States crusading against Islam, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of U.S. servicemen and the beginnings of the terrorism we now know -- and led his own administration into comic and illegal arms-for-hostages deals bartered from Tehran to Tel Aviv to Tegucigalpa.

He was politically alone those last two years. Congress and the press treated him as a fool or a crook. Conservatives abandoned him, consigning him to Lenin’s category of “useful idiots.” But he knew one big thing, and always had: Communism would fall of its own weight and contradictions. And he had found the key to victory in the Cold War: a Soviet leader who also understood that old-fashioned communism was collapsing.

The official notes of the Reagan/Mikhail S. Gorbachev meetings, finally released in this century, show convincingly that Reagan, trying to save his ideology and his presidency, prevailed over Gorbachev, the Russian trying to save his ideology and his country.

At the end of 1987, Reagan’s seventh year in office, Gorbachev came to Washington. There was a state dinner on Dec. 8, which ended with Gorbachev and his wife standing and belting out a lively “Moscow Nights” as Van Cliburn played the piano. Two days later, the best of the conservative columnists, Reagan’s best friends in the press, wrote that “Dec. 8 will be remembered as the day the Cold War was lost.” In fact, it was the day we won the Cold War.

Reagan did not, as his champions preach, win it alone. We all did, beginning with Harry S Truman. But Reagan in his stubborn conviction speeded the end.

There was no one at his inauguration in January 1981 who would have predicted that within 10 years the Soviet Union would be dissolved and Russia would begin applying for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Well, maybe Ronald Reagan did. But no one took him seriously -- then.