Our 40th president is easily the most popular president since World War II, even among his detractors. It’s easy to see why. More conservative than predecessors Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (not to mention his vice president, George H.W. Bush), his roots actually lay in the New Deal. In his diary, he even laments how the press has painted him as trying to undo the New Deal when he felt it was Johnson’s Great Society that needed to be dismantled.
The America Reagan presided over in 1981 was broke, exhausted, and self-loathing. Vietnam, Watergate, and a stagnant economy combined to batter the population and convince most Americans that we were in severe decline. (Sounds a bit like today, doesn’t it?) Reagan knew the nation needed a shake-up to get things going again. His role models?
From a leadership perspective, Reagan turned to FDR, a man he voted for in all four elections, along with Harry Truman in 1948. Roosevelt might have been opposite in ideology to Reagan, but he had many things to teach Reagan about uniting a divided and demoralized population. Having good working relationships with opponents helped. His relationship with Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil is well-documented. There are numerous entries in his diary where he accuses O’Neil of playing games or obstructing his agenda, then, on the same day, has dinner or cocktails with O’Neil. What many fail to understand about the presidency and Congressional leadership is that it bears more resemblance to the old Warner Brothers cartoon featuring Sam the Sheep Dog and Ralph Wolf than most of the nonsensical pap spewed by radio talkshow hosts and demagogic pundits.
Reagan did something that had not been done since Andrew Jackson in 1835. He survived getting shot by a would-be assassin. John Hinkley’s bullet did far more damage to Reagan than Charles Giteau’s did to James Garfield in 1881, but better security, better medical techniques, and, the advent of antibiotics saved Reagan. It’s highly likely Garfield might have lived had he been shot 100 years later, but had Reagan been in his place, even the best efforts of doctors in 1881 would not save him.
One of the things that is pointed out about Reagan is his hands-off approach to management. Reagan would give orders and expect it to be carried out. Unlike, say, Richard Nixon, who elevated micromanagement to an art form, this tended to separate Reagan from his subordinates. It allowed Reagan to have a broader focus as president, but it also got him into trouble when those under him, such as Attorney General Edwin Meese or Lt. Col. Oliver North, went out on their own on the assumption the president wanted plausible deniability.
Many of Reagan’s policies and views painted him as a racist and hostile to the poor. His diary reveals the opposite, though while he decries a biased press, he concedes that, by not following the herd on solving race problems or continuing the top-down approach begun under LBJ, he did indeed look like he was pandering to rich, white men. Compounding this were some hardline views on drugs and on abortion. Indeed, a more nuanced view of abortion common today had yet to evolve during Reagan’s term.
In foreign policy, Reagan’s twin triumphs involved standing up to the Soviets, particularly as he found himself dealing with a fractured Politburo propping up three dying neo-Bolsheviks, and developing rapport with Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan was a staunch anti-communist, and this often put the US in an embarrassing position. As long as the Cold War raged, the United States took the approach of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” which meant friendship with the repressive government of El Salvador and with brutal dictator Ferdinand Marcos of The Philippines. But Reagan had excellent relationships with the leaders of Canada, France, Italy, West Germany, Japan, and, in particular, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. Thanks to Reagan’s efforts, Russian became part of what’s now called the G20. This goodwill extended to China, which recently formalized relations with the US when Reagan took office, and even saw a near thaw in relations with Cuba. Reagan did not see enemies, a flaw Nixon could never overcome. Reagan saw rivals. You can respect and deal with a rival. It’s one of the reasons the Cold War ended in 1990 and not 2010.
It’s the economy that leaves Reagan still controversial among Americans. If FDR showed Reagan how to lead, Calvin Coolidge showed him what the agenda would be. Coolidge was a small-government fiscal conservative whose policies appealed to Reagan. He saw the tax code as punishing the rich for being rich and choking businesses from investing. Did it work? In the high-tax atmosphere of 1981, slashing the tax brackets and simplifying the tax code was a no-brainer. The irony lies in the same thing that has plagued pro-small government presidents for the last half-century: It resulted in deficit spending.
What mars Reagan’s legacy with the working class is the switch to a free trade policy as opposed to fair trade. In the long run, free trade has been a boon to the American economy, but early on, it devastated the auto, rubber, and steel industries. Pittsburgh will never again be a steel town, and Detroit is a shell of its former self. In another irony, it took a New Deal-style bailout to rid General Motors and Chrysler of the mismanagement that kept both companies from adapting to compete with Japanese auto makers. Then again, like the New Deal coalition, the current conservative bloc suffers from the same inertia that keeps it from adapting to new problems and a new generation of voters.
I recall not liking Reagan very much in high school. I was a child of the Steel Belt. There was supposed to be a factory job waiting for me after high school, maybe even at General Motors or Ford. Indeed, my first election was 1984, and I voted for Mondale. (The more I learn about Carter as president, the more I regret that vote.) But four years later, I saw Reagan, President-elect Bush, and Mikhail Gorbachev standing in New York looking out at the Statue of Liberty, smiling and shaking hands. Yeah, the President of the United States was genuinely friendly to the President of the Soviet Union. We had no idea the Berlin Wall or the failed putsch or the breakup of the Soviet Union was coming. But we knew it was a lot less likely that our lives would end like something out of The Day After. My opinion of Reagan changed over time, much as it has for Bill Clinton and will likely change for George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Reagan saw a nation in need of shaking up and a boost in confidence. When he left office in January of 1989, it felt good to be an American again.