Reagan, Then and Now
Commentators and politicians are underestimating him — again.


Everyone has a favorite Reagan speech. Some would choose the 1964 tongue-lashing of the Left and defense of Goldwater; others, his acceptance speech in 1980; others, his election-eve remarks in 1980; while others choose the “Tear down this wall!” barnburner, the “boys of Pointe du Hoc” tearjerker, the “dustbin of history” indictment, the thundering “Evil Empire” avowal — the list goes on and on. Maybe his greatest challenge in public speaking was in his extemporaneous remarks at the end of the 1976 convention, just after he lost the nomination to Gerald Ford by 57 votes out of 2,259. These nationally televised remarks were visionary, uplifting, and inspirational. Had he been allowed to address the convention two nights earlier, his words might well have swung the nomination to him, as the Ford forces feared.

Reagan gave so many good speeches, it is hard to pick a single favorite, although one is the 1992 Houston-convention speech — “whatever else history may say of me . . .” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Also, his series of “iron triangle” speeches in the final weeks of his second term, indicting the media, the special interests, and Congress, were meaty and powerful. He went out with a bang, not a whimper.

That is not to say he didn’t have some clunkers. His speech in August of 1982 asking the American people to support TEFRA — a large tax increase — was a dead letter. In the early days of the 1976 campaign, he turned in some bad performances before he found his footing. But the fact remains that it was actually news when, occasionally, he did not meet expectations.

Reagan attracted so many good writers and good people because he himself was a good writer and good person. Administrations often work that way. Nixon attracted staff who shared his dark view of the world, FDR attracted self-confident men, JFK attracted intellectually curious men, and so forth. LBJ attracted some really bad characters because — well, you get the picture.

From the time Reagan first became a national political figure and right through his eight years in the White House, too-quick-to-judge reporters and political observers complained that he wasn’t saying anything new, and at one level they were right. But the more sophisticated discerned that in fact Reagan’s content was always fresh; it’s just that his themes were consistent.

Reagan was himself a first-rate researcher and essayist and had thought at one point in his life about pursuing a career as a professional writer. But again the Reagan doubters were not convinced of his intellectual heft until Marty and Annelise Anderson and Kiron Skinner edited the books Reagan: A Life in Letters and Reagan: In His Own Hand, sizable tomes that came out at just the right time, just as the Reagan legacy was in danger of becoming misshapen and unrecognizable, a pawn of the establishment types who wanted to downgrade his place in history, or rewrite it into something more acceptable to them. Just ask Calvin Coolidge about what liberal historians did to his legacy. Or Dwight David Eisenhower.

Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The very forces of the establishment Republicans who made war against Reagan before he was REAGAN are at it again, saying the Gipper could not have survived in the modern Republican party or would have been rejected by the tea party or could not have been elected today. Actually, the Constitution would forbid him from completing a third term, and we all know in what reverence he held that sacred document. Those same forces who thought men like Bill and Jim Buckley were unsophisticated and out of touch are now making war against the intellectual conservative forces of the tea party. It’s as if an Iron Curtain has fallen across the GOP, with the statists on one side and the forces for individuality on the other.

Jeb Bush has said Reagan would be too liberal for the modern GOP. Jon Huntsman has made the same claim. As scions of wealthy, establishment families, their observations need to be taken with a little more than a grain of salt. Actually, the fight inside the GOP today, pitting the insider elites against the outsider reformers, is very much like the fight in which Reagan found himself in the mid-1970s. Reagan, the intellectual populist, was a tea-party leader long before there was a tea-party movement — but there was a conservative movement, and he was very much the leader of that vibrant political force.

Those who write that Reagan would not now fit in the party he largely created make the mistake so many do in discussing Reagan: They confuse tactics with principles.

They charge that it is forgotten that Reagan compromised; but in fact, conservatives celebrate him for compromising on tactics, but never on goals or principles. Changing tactics can be smart politics. Changing principles is not.