Politics & Policy

Getting Back on The Right Path

New book puts Ronald Reagan’s legacy in context.

“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.

Bill Clinton raised rates but paid for it in the 1994 Republican landslide. His Democratic successor, Barack Obama, would end up repudiating whatever might have been left of Democratic orthodoxy when he extended George W. Bush’s tax cuts through the 2012 election — a sign that Reagan’s worldview was now as permanent a part of the American landscape as FDR’s had been.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were to Ronald Reagan what Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were to Franklin Roosevelt: ratifiers of the order created by a dominant and enduring president whose long shadow casts itself over Washington policies for generations to come. Even today, most voters have come to expect a government that provides FDR’s programs with Reagan’s tax rates. One day that ideological conflict will have to be resolved, but few hazard to guess when that will be.

• The Cold War. No charge worried Reagan’s opponents more, both before and early in his presidency, than the one that cast him as a nuclear cowboy and warmonger. Carter was explicit about this in 1980.

But what happened? The conservative hawk outraged liberal critics by calling nuclear-weapon systems “peacemakers,” by refusing to back down on his missile-defense system, and by disavowing the détente approach favored by Nixon, Ford, and Carter. And while negotiating from a position of strength, Reagan forced the Soviets to enter into deals that helped reduce nuclear arsenals and would eventually lead the United States to victory in the Cold War. He did it by using negotiating skills learned while serving as a liberal Hollywood union leader, starting with a tough bargaining position but gradually finding a way to let his adversary out of the corner.

Of course no single person won the Cold War. What President Kennedy called the “long twilight struggle” required the blood and patience of martyrs behind the Iron Curtain, the bravery of shipyard workers in Gdansk, the quiet witness of the voiceless within the Communist bloc, and the investments of time and treasure made by American presidents of both parties.

But Ronald Reagan did more than any other president to bring a successful end to a conflict that once seemed interminable. The man who had made “détente” a dirty word in Republican politics in the 1970s accomplished more than all the Wise Men and all the realpolitik New Yorkers ever had. And he did it, presidential historian Michael Beschloss said, by making a one-trillion-dollar bet that the Soviet leaders could not keep up with spending levels pushed by an American president who was willing to go all in with such a strategic bet. Reagan was right. The USSR was soon reduced to the ash heap of history.

Guns. A longtime Second Amendment guy, Reagan showed pragmatism even on the explosive issue of guns. “With the right to bear arms comes a great responsibility to use caution and common sense on handgun purchases,” Reagan said on the tenth anniversary of the assassination attempt on his life. “And it’s just plain common sense that there be a waiting period to allow local law-enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to purchase handguns.”

According to the New York Times, a National Rifle Association official, on hearing of Reagan’s support for the waiting period, gazed at a photo of Reagan on his desk and said, “Don’t do this to me.”

Then, three years later, Ronald Reagan signed a letter supporting a proposed ban on assault weapons. “This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety,” Reagan wrote. “Although assault weapons account for less than 1% of the guns in circulation, they account for nearly 10% of the guns traced to crime. . . . While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”

Reagan famously was responsible for the bill’s passage by picking up the phone and calling wavering GOP congressmen. His final call to Wisconsin Republican Scott Klug gave the congressman the courage needed to cast the deciding vote for the legislation. Even out of office, Ronald Reagan’s pragmatic conservatism held sway over swing voters.

In 1985, at the 30th-anniversary dinner for National Review at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Bill Buckley directly addressed his fellow guest, President Ronald Reagan.

“As an individual you incarnate American ideals at many levels,” Buckley said to the president. “As the final responsible authority, in any hour of great challenge, we depend on you.” Buckley was 19 when America dropped the bomb at Hiroshima, he said, and he had just turned 60. “During the interval I have lived a free man in a free and sovereign country, and this only because we have husbanded a nuclear deterrent, and made clear our disposition to use it if necessary. I pray that my son, when he is 60, and your son, when he is 60 . . . will live in a world from which the great ugliness that has scarred our century has passed. Enjoying their freedoms, they will be grateful that, at the threatened nightfall, the blood of their fathers ran strong.”

Four years later, Ronald Reagan would board Marine One to leave the Capitol grounds in the moments after the inauguration of George Herbert Walker Bush for his first journey back to California as a former president. Because Reagan’s blood did run strong, and because he was so wonderfully equipped to ignore the chorus of critics who questioned his judgment and smarts on a daily basis, he could fly westward into the setting sun with the assurance that in his time he had done everything that could be done. “We finished the race; we kept them free; we kept the faith.”

Within months of Reagan’s retirement, the Warsaw Pact’s foundation began cracking apart. Soon after, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet empire collapsed in ruins, and 100 million souls across Europe were set free. Millions of those liberated souls would rightly credit Ronald Reagan for their newfound freedom.

— From the book The Right Path by Joe Scarborough. © 2013 by Joe Scarborough. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House. All rights reserved.


The Latest