Politics & Policy

Pragmatic Reagan?

You can be a smart pol and principled, too.

By the time this column sees daylight, it’s unlikely that there will be many original nice things left to say about Ronald Reagan. To summarize why I admired the Gipper: He was put on earth to do two things: kick butt and chew gum, and he ran out of gum around 1962. The rest is commentary.

So let me comment on one aspect of the Reagan coverage that has been driving me nuts: the notion that Ronald Reagan was a “pragmatist.”

I first picked up on this theme when I heard MSNBC’s Lester Holt ask during an interview whether the “one word” that defines Reagan was “pragmatic” since, he explained, so many of his interviewees used the adjective.

A quick Nexis database search confirms my impression. Time and again, in scores of newscasts, obituaries and op-eds, a great many in the media establishment seem to think that what made Reagan a good president wasn’t so much his idealism but his willingness to throw it out the window when it was politically convenient.

“The 40th president was a combination of ideologue and pragmatist who could compromise and still appear to be a man of unbending principle,” observed the New York Times in its obituary.

The San Francisco Chronicle concurred: “For all of his ideological passion…he was also a pragmatist who could strike up human rapport and a deal with any Democrat.”

He was a small government conservative, agreed the Telegraph, “Yet Reagan also possessed a cheerful pragmatism…which prevented him from becoming doctrinaire or vindictive.”

And the Chicago Tribune noted, “For a revolutionary, Reagan was a pragmatist who always governed more moderately than he orated.” After all, he “called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ but adhered to the arms control treaties it signed and negotiated another.”

Sigh. I suppose we should be grateful. After all, complimenting Reagan on allegedly deviating from his principles is the only compliment many of these people can offer since they disliked his principles so much.

For many in the press, Reagan’s decency was a sort of hypocrisy–since conservatism and decency are supposed to be contradictory terms. But rather than speak ill of the dead and condemn him for it, they call this perceived hypocrisy “pragmatism.”

After all, when the very liberal Senator Paul Wellstone died tragically in a plane crash in 2002, the nearly universal consensus among the same journalists was that what made him a great man was his refusal to compromise his ideological agenda. With Reagan, it’s the reverse.

But for the record: Reagan was no pragmatist, at least not in the way so many claim. Richard Nixon, the first President Bush, Bill Clinton: These men were pragmatists. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was an ideologue. Proudly so. And that’s why conservatives loved him.

To call the Gipper a pragmatist is to confuse ends and means so totally so as to lose any comprehension of the difference between the two. It’s one thing to say, “I have got to get to California, but I’m pragmatic about the best way to get there: car, boat, plane, train, mule, whatever.” It’s another thing to say, “I don’t care where I go.” Reagan was no hamster on a treadmill, marking time, going nowhere, waiting for events to come to him.

My friend, and former Reagan speechwriter, Peter Robinson overflows with stories about how Reagan knew precisely where he wanted to go.

For example: “Some people think I’m simplistic,” Reagan told Richard Allen in 1977, four years before Allen became Reagan’s first national security adviser, “but there’s a difference between being simplistic and being simple. My theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose. What do you think about that?”

That is not something a pragmatist would say or believe in the 1970s or 1980s. Indeed, the entire “let Reagan be Reagan” debate centered on one elemental fact–Reagan championed ideas first, last, and always, and his pragmatic aides knew it and didn’t like it.

Of course, Ronald Reagan was a politician. And politicians–smart ones at least–understand that a dogged determination to follow a straight line, particularly in foreign policy, is not always the shortest route to victory. This is something critics, in both parties, of George Bush’s Iraq compromises should keep in mind.

Still, it is a sign of the poor repute of ideas and idealism in this country today that so many people believe there’s a contradiction between being humane, decent, and practical and being “ideological.”

Ideology, properly understood, is a checklist of priorities and principles. And conservative ideology explicitly accepts that compromise is part of life, since this world can never be made as perfect as the next. Reagan left this world better than he found it because he never stopped being an ideologue when it mattered. Now, he’s in the next world, where he can rest–and chew some gum.


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