Getting Back on The Right Path
New book puts Ronald Reagan’s legacy in context.


Joe Scarborough

“As an individual you incarnate American ideals at many levels. As the final responsible authority, in any hour of great challenge, we depend on you.”

 — William F. Buckley Jr., to President Reagan, 1985

“Let us be sure that those who come after will say of us in our time, that in our time we did everything that could be done. We finished the race; we kept them free; we kept the faith.”

 — Ronald Reagan, 1984 State of the Union address

You could not then — or now — buy the kind of coverage Time magazine gave Ronald Reagan in midsummer 1986. The cover featured a portrait of Reagan with the question, “Why Is This Man So Popular?” Inside, beneath the headline “Yankee Doodle Magic,” Lance Morrow wrote:

Ronald Reagan has found the American sweet spot. The white ball sails into the sparkling air in a high parabola and vanishes over the fence, again. The 75-year-old man is hitting home runs. Winning a lopsided vote on a tax-reform plan that others had airily dismissed. Turning Congress around on the contras. Preparing to stand with a revitalized Miss Liberty on the Fourth of July. He grins his boyish grin and bobs his head in the way he has and trots around the bases.

Reagan inhabits his moment in America with a triumphant (some might say careless or even callous) ease that is astonishing and even mysterious. . . . He is a Prospero of American memories, a magician who carries a bright, ideal America like a holograph in his mind and projects its image in the air. . . . Reagan, master illusionist, is himself a kind of American dream. Looking at his genial, crinkly face prompts a sense of wonder: How does he pull it off?

His barber, Milton Pitts, reports that when Ronald Reagan took office his hair was about 25% gray. It is now 30% gray. The President has added a second hearing aid in the past year or so. He uses three combinations for his eyes: hard contact lenses for normal activities, half glasses over the contacts for reading, and a single contact lens (left eye) for giving speeches on podiums where he needs to focus on the audience and the TelePrompTer at the same time. Reagan still has his suits made with buttons on the flies. He refuses to wear makeup for television. He pumps iron every day. He rides a horse when he can. His favorite story is his old surreal barnyard parable regarding optimism — about the boy who finds a pile of horse manure in a room and cries excitedly, “I just know there’s a pony in here somewhere.”

The septuagenarian in the White House is not necessarily getting any younger. On the other hand, he does not seem to be getting any older. His suit size has been the same for years — 42 — and so have the ideological furnishings of his mind. His principles give him a certain serenity, and possibly the luck that comes to the optimist. Reagan keeps finding the pony. He proceeds, amiably and formidably, from success to success. His life is a sort of fairy tale of American power. The business of magic is sleight of hand: now you see it, now you don’t. Ronald Reagan is a sort of masterpiece of American magic — apparently one of the simplest, most uncomplicated creatures alive, and yet a character of rich meanings, of complexities that connect him with the myths and powers of his country in an unprecedented way.

Time reported another critical fact about Reagan’s America: In a startling reversal from the 1960s, young people identified more with the aging Republican president than with the Democrats. “A White House survey for May,” the magazine said, “showed that 82% of registered voters age 24 and under approved of Reagan. Says Presidential Pollster Richard Wirthlin: ‘This is an age cohort that has known only two Presidents.’ The binary vision of the young: in their memories, Carter meant failure, Reagan means success.”

How did Reagan do it? It wasn’t all Prospero and fairy dust. The Reagan years were substantive ones in constructive conservatism. He never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, either at home or abroad, and his presidency will long be a rich source of instruction and inspiration for conservatives who hope, as Reagan used to say, to make it the way they want it to be.

Three examples should make the point.

• Taxes and government. He arrived in Washington in January 1981 determined to reduce the size and scope of government. In the end he couldn’t do as much as he would have liked. But Ronald Reagan did what was possible.

By passing the Kemp-Roth tax-rate-reduction bill in 1981, Reagan reduced marginal income-tax rates dramatically. And by successfully pursuing tax reform in 1986, Reagan further reduced the tax burden on most Americans. His relentless focus on the amount of money the federal government took from each taxpayer has dominated the political dynamic in the country ever since. As George H. W. Bush learned when he went along with new tax increases in 1990, breaking his “read my lips” pledge, Americans after Reagan remain deeply skeptical of any plan that takes money out of their pockets and sends it to Washington.