Preserving the Reagan Legacy

Friday, April 30, 2004

It is time for those who worked for Ronald Reagan and those who cherish his contributions to redouble their efforts to preserve his legacy.

Don’t expect the academic community or professional writers to do that for us. The university departments most likely to write the history of this era and to interpret Reagan’s contributions tilt to the left. Respected writers, including Edmund Morris, have been so jaded by their experiences with enigmatic, Machiavellian figures they have difficulty understanding and appreciating a man who said what he meant and meant what he said.

Because of their bias, the mainstream media won’t be kind to President Reagan either. For example, David Brady and Jonathan Ma found that from 1990 to 2002 the Washington Post and the New York Times were between two and five times as likely to label senators on the right as “conservative” than to label senators on the left as “liberal.” Moreover, they tended to characterize conservative senators critically while characterizing liberal senators in flattering terms. Once I had a long talk with a reporter from National Public Radio who maintained that NPR is “middle of the road.” His evidence: “When I go to dinner parties, about half the people think we’re too conservative, and about half think we’re too liberal.” It never dawned on him that his choice of dinner parties might bias his conclusion.

People need to be reminded that President Reagan restored America’s confidence, propelled its economy into the longest expansion in history, and, in Mrs. Thatcher’s words, “won the Cold War without firing a single shot.” Millions of young people need to learn about those accomplishments. A few years ago I addressed the annual convention of the College Republicans and made the point that conservatives do best when they put on a cheerful, happy face by reminding them of the 1980 presidential debate where Governor Reagan countered President Carter’s criticisms with a jocular, “Well, there you go again.” A sea of blank faces stared back at me, and only then did I realize that they were not even born in 1980.

What are the major features of the Reagan legacy? First, he was a man of principle. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, as an advocate for Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid, as governor of California, as a candidate for president in 1976 and 1980, and as president from 1981 to 1989, he was steadfast and transparent in what he believed. Re-read the speech he gave in 1964. It’s all there: tax cuts, smaller government, standing up for American interests, doing the right thing.

Second, President Reagan was a man of great faith in America and optimism about the future, as evidenced by his fondness for telling about the delighted kid who was found in a stall shoveling away at a large pile of manure: “with all this stuff, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere,” and his constant invocation of the metaphor “shining city on a hill,” as well as his admonition “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Third, like many leaders, President Reagan was a man of great charm. You wanted to be with him, feeling something special in his presence. He was self-effacing, as in “Honey, I forgot to duck” and his quip “Missed me,” when a balloon popped as he was delivering an address.

His abilities as a communicator, while recognized, were misunderstood and underestimated. He taught a lot in parables. At Cabinet discussions about the budget, he would often tell a story about how as governor of California he saved the state money by sending mail out a few days early to avoid a scheduled increase in the price of stamps. Or he would tell about how some people “farm” the government rather than grow crops. Many reporters commented on how often he told the same story. The reason wasn’t forgetfulness: It was because his audience didn’t get it the first time.

President Reagan was comfortable with himself. He saw the presidency as a position from which you make changes, not as an end in itself. He didn’t seem to care what critics said about him. If he knew about the recent CBS fictional account of his life, it wouldn’t really bother him (except for its depiction of Nancy). And look at the way he turned over his presidency—with grace and humility. I heard him say on several occasions, “I’m going back to California; I’m going back to the ranch.”

This is a legacy worth preserving. It’s why books by his associates are important. It’s why the Reagan Library is important. It’s why naming buildings and other real estate for him is so important. It’s why op-eds and letters are important. And why most important of all are the testimonials of those who had the great fortune of having Ronald Reagan as our president.