Ronald Reagan was the best president in our lifetime. This is no empty boast: Last year, Gallup asked Americans whom they consider the greatest president. Ronald Reagan came in first, followed by Abraham Lincoln — the same result as two years earlier. In the words of Dame Margaret Thatcher, “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot.” In addition, he put the economy on its longest peacetime expansion in U.S. history and restored America’s faith in itself.
How did Ronald Reagan do all this? What were the characteristics of the man that led to such success? There were several, they were inter-woven, and all were important.
First was his humility. When speaking about public issues, the context was not “I,” it was “we,” as in “We the People.” In dealing with the press and with others, he was always polite and accommodating. With the public he was approachable and engaging. He never viewed the presidency as “his”: He always thought of his having the honor of serving the American people for a short time, then returning to private life.
A second reason for President Reagan’s success was his extraordinary trust in the goodness and good sense of the American people — and we felt that bond of trust. He loved to say, “You won’t go wrong trusting the American people.” He appreciated the good work that governments can do, but he was wary of concentrating too much power in Washington. He was fond of pointing out that the constitutions of totalitarian states tell the people what rights they have under the government, whereas in our case the people tell the government what limited rights it has.
A third reason for President Reagan’s success is that he could focus on overarching goals with laser precision. In National Security Council meetings, he often said, “If the Soviets want to wage a Cold War, it is a war they will not win!” When he was forced to compromise with Congress, he’d say, in effect, “Thanks for the half loaf; I’ll be back next year for the other half.” Of course, he was successful in getting what he wanted in part because he was the Great Communicator. I once asked the head of the White House communications office how it was to hold this job for President Reagan. “Piece o’ cake,” was the answer.
Fourth, one thing that sustained President Reagan — and most everyone else — was his sense of humor. In one of his first Cabinet meetings, the topic was whether he should sign an executive order allowing economic development in federal lands’ pristine wilderness areas. Those who spoke were supportive, but it was clear that the president was not persuaded. In a final effort, the secretary of energy, Jim Edwards, said, “Mr. President, I still don’t see why bears need cleaner air to breath than us humans!” Without missing a beat, the president queried, “Jim, have you ever smelled a bear?”
President Reagan didn’t reserve his humor for Americans only, as on several occasions he regaled General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev with stories in which the General Secretary was the butt of the joke. And President Reagan’s humor prevailed even under very trying circumstances, as when he told a distraught first lady, “Honey, I forgot to duck”; when he told his surgeons, “I hope you are all Republicans”; and even years later, when he retorted, “Missed me!” when a balloon popped next to his microphone.
A final reason for President Reagan’s success is that he had a deep, abiding faith in God and a belief that he was put here for a purpose — especially after the assassination attempt that almost took his life. As he wrote in his diary about that day: “Getting shot hurts. Still my fear was growing because no matter how hard I tried to breath it seemed I was getting less and less air. I focused on that tiled ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children and therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold. . . . Whatever happens now, I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can.”
Candidates for public office from both right and left could learn much from President Reagan — and at no time since his administration is the proper civility that Ronald Reagan brought to national politics any more needed.
— Jim Miller served President Reagan as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (1981–1985) and as director of the Office of Management and Budget (1985–1988). He’s now a senior adviser to Husch Blackwell, LLP.