A Ronald Reagan boomlet is sweeping the nation, thanks in no small part to an army of conservative admirers who have never missed a chance to buff his image — and then use it for their own ends. Nothing looms larger for Reagan worshippers than the centennial of his birthday on Feb. 6.
FOR THE RECORD:
Reagan: A Jan. 23 Op-Ed on Ronald Reagan said that he signed the START I nuclear arms treaty. Reagan proposed the treaty; President George H.W. Bush signed it. —
Fittingly, Californians were first off the mark to celebrate their local hero: On Jan. 1, the Reagan Presidential Foundation and Jelly Belly, the jelly bean company that filled candy dishes at the Reagan White House, sponsored the first-ever Rose Parade float memorializing a president. It was 26 feet high and 55 feet long and featured 11 poppy-seed pictures highlighting the Great Communicator’s life, not to mention 65,000 red roses.
A week later, the National Archives unveiled a yearlong Reagan exhibit, including a bronze replica of the Kremlin given to him by Mikhail Gorbachev. Indiana is sponsoring an essay contest for schoolchildren on Reagan’s most important contribution to American history. His admirers in Nevada are trying to name a state peak Mt. Reagan this year, adding to the long list of naming opportunities pursued by the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which was established in 1997, seven years before his death.
In Illinois, Reagan’s birthplace, the state GOP is holding a fundraiser on Feb. 5 that presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and John R. Bolton have promised to attend (Sarah Palin and John Thune are on the invite list). Meanwhile, Ron Reagan has just released a book exploring his dad’s impact: “My Father at 100.”
In this tsunami of adoration, Reagan is touted as the model of Republican, and even “tea party,” virtue. He’s the anti-Bush for those teed off at George W., who allegedly corrupted the GOP by engaging in enormous deficit spending and increasing the size of government, with programs like the prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind. What’s more, invoking Reagan’s name has become conservative shorthand for denouncing President Obama, as well as a rhetorical gambit in the effort to revive his potent coalition of economic, social and national security conservatives.
He is a constant point of GOP reference. In her new book, Palin announces that America’s leaders must return to the idea of America “as the shining city on a hill that Ronald Reagan believed it is.” (She uses his name more than 30 times in the text.) Sen. Jim DeMint said in December that Palin had “done more for the Republican Party than anyone since Ronald Reagan.” Gingrich piously bows to Reagan’s economic prowess in his latest tract: “Just as Reagan ushered in a 25-year economic boom, with the right policies we could launch a new boom lasting till 2035.”
With Republicans lining up to claim his mantle, the GOP credo for 2012 seems to be WWRD — what would Reagan do?
But Reagan’s acolytes may be misunderstanding the master’s record. Is the Reagan who’s being touted as a paragon of conservative rectitude the Reagan of reality? Was Reagan an unflinching, true-blue conservative, perfect in every way? Or was he, in fact, something else — a pragmatic realist in both foreign and domestic policy and a leader, like most presidents, who committed mistakes and errors in judgment that can’t be wished away?
Certainly Reagan faithfully adhered to GOP liturgy by bashing big government and spending. “A government bureau,” he once declared, " is the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth.” When it came to foreign affairs, he took the hardest of hard lines in a 1983 speech that dubbed the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”
But in assessing any president, it’s more illuminating to focus on what he did rather than the bombast delivered to the rubber-chicken-and-mashed-potato circuit. Early in his political career, as governor of California, Reagan displayed his pragmatic side, signing an abortion bill and agreeing to a $1-billion state tax hike. Similarly, as president, he paid lip service to ending abortion but never did anything about it, and he worked with congressional Democrats on a massive tax hike in 1982, thereby averting the worst effects of the supply-side deficit spending he had endorsed when he entered office the year before.
Moreover, Reagan, the putative foe of big government, accumulated hundreds of billions in debt by the end of his second term. It was Democrat Bill Clinton who cleaned up the mess, leaving a budget surplus behind in 2000.
Nor did the Great Communicator display great fidelity to hard-line conservative principles when it came to foreign policy, especially in dealing with the Soviet Union. Instead, it was his conciliatory side that came to the fore. Even in his “evil empire” speech, for example, he crossed out typed text and inserted by hand, “This does not mean we should isolate ourselves and refuse to seek an understanding with them. I intend to do everything I can to persuade them of our peaceful intent.”
Reagan placed a premium on alliances with Western Europe and tried to keep American troops out of foreign combat, including withdrawing them from Lebanon in 1983. He heeded his moderate advisors, such as James A. Baker III (his chief of staff, Treasury secretary and national security advisor) and George P. Shultz (his secretary of State), not extreme voices from the far right. When the far right did get its way, as in the Iran-Contra affair, a debacle that almost brought down Reagan’s presidency, it’s not clear that he was cognizant of its illegal actions.
Nothing ended up infuriating the right more than Reagan’s fear of the prospect of nuclear war. To the outrage of conservatives such as George F. Will, he tried to cut a deal in 1987 with Soviet leader Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, that would have abolished nuclear weapons. He went on to sign the sweeping START I arms control treaty with the Kremlin, slashing the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and prompting leading neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz to denounce “the idea that communism is a spent force,” while Sens. Jesse Helms and Dan Quayle called Reagan’s support for arms control “totally irresponsible.” So much for Reagan the ideologue.
In fact, history may see in Reagan a great president, just not in the mold of his current boosters. His greatness rested precisely in his readiness to abandon his conservative principles when it made sense to do so. That’s how he helped achieve the gains often ascribed to him: He delivered the knockout blow to communism by making common cause with the enemy. He protected national security by backing away from nuclear weapons. Had he listened to his apoplectic right-wing critics, the Soviet empire would never have collapsed and the Cold War would not have ended.
If Reagan could see how his disciples picture him, he might ask, as he did when he titled his 1965 autobiography, “Where’s the rest of me?”
In short, a bogus myth about Reagan has become far more precious to today’s GOP than his actual record. Despite venerating Reagan, the party has moved to the right of him, suggesting that the federal government should be kneecapped and that a unilateralist, militaristic foreign policy would fulfill Regan’s legacy. Reagan, however, didn’t demonize his enemies, snub allies or try to destroy the federal government.
Reagan, in other words, couldn’t be counted among contemporary Reaganites.
As Barack Obama shrewdly noted during the 2008 primary, Reagan was a transformative president. He rallied America from despair by appealing to its best, not its worst, instincts. Reagan would surely have approved both the budget deal with the GOP and the New START treaty with Russia that Obama pushed through and signed at the end of 2010. It may well be that Obama is much closer to the Gipper’s true spirit than those seeking to burnish his posthumous reputation.
Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the National Interest, is the author of “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.”