Reagan Revelation: At 100, Why He Still Matters

A century after his birth and 30 years after he took office, President Ronald Reagan's optimistic vision and complex conservatism inspire and haunt Republicans and Democrats alike

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Michael Evans / ZUMA Press

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This refusal to be bound by the status quo, this capacity for seeing what eludes the more literal-minded, is the hallmark of transformational leadership. "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world," said George Bernard Shaw. "The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." Was anyone more unreasonable than Lincoln in committing the lives of countless soldiers to validate his mystical theology of Union? Seventy years later, FDR inhabited a reality of his own making. As President, he was forever inventing conversations with fictitious garage mechanics and Chinese laundrymen who had just "dropped in" long enough to voice agreement with his policies and provide spectral evidence of Roosevelt's closeness to ordinary Americans. Yet the same fertile imagination conjured Lend-Lease, the Four Freedoms and a too-clever-by-half scheme to pack the Supreme Court with Justices friendly to his New Deal.

For his part, Reagan practiced make-believe long before Warner Bros. paid him to do so. As a child in rural Illinois, he was encouraged by his doting mother to look upon the "oatmeal meat" she served her family as a rare delicacy. As a young radio announcer calling Chicago Cubs games for station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, Reagan didn't miss a beat when the telegraph wire went dead one day and he was forced to improvise by describing a fictional series of pitches and foul balls. The adult Reagan convinced himself that he had never been a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. Nothing better illustrates his parallel universe than Reagan's visit to the National Naval Medical Center in the summer of 1985. Doctors successfully operated on the President for a colon malignancy, news of which they shared with the press, only to be rebuffed by their distinguished patient.

He didn't have cancer, maintained Reagan. Something inside him had cancer, and the surgeons removed it, Reagan explained with the same blithe disregard for the obvious that buttressed his faith in the Laffer Curve, inspired the Strategic Defense Initiative to ward off incoming Soviet missiles and fostered the President's unshakable belief that defense spending — which soared under his leadership — added nothing to the federal deficit.

Two years ago, I wrote in this magazine that with Barack Obama's election, the Reagan era was coming to a close. My assessment was, at the least, premature. Across much of the ideological spectrum, government today generates less trust and incites more hostility than the unregulated market forces that helped bring on the economic meltdown. If Obama has bounced back from the drubbing his party took at the polls last November, it is in no small measure because he has been acting positively Reaganesque as of late, reaching out to the business community, scoring bipartisan victories and delivering in Tucson a sermon against mindless partisanship worthy of the Great Communicator at his most consoling. Moving to the middle is a re-election strategy more tactical than transformative, unless Obama at some point is willing to confront hard choices mandated by past generosity and implacable demographics. Can this President reimagine liberalism for the 21st century? Is he sufficiently unconventional to subject government to an intellectual as well as a fiscal means test?

Republicans confront their own test. Having largely succeeded in framing the debate over federal spending, can they now emulate Reagan's principled pragmatism and settle for anything less than 100% of their stated objectives? If the Age of Reagan is anywhere consigned to the history books, it is among those who claim his mantle while practicing little of their hero's sunny optimism and even less of his inclusiveness. Reagan, after all, excelled at the politics of multiplication. Too many of his professed admirers on talk radio and cable gabfests appear to prefer division. Can Tea Party Republicans endorse an immigration bill like the one Reagan signed in 1986, imposing penalties on those who knowingly hire illegal immigrants but also granting amnesty to 3 million immigrants already here?

Long before Obama made hope his byword, Reagan was offering a share of the American Dream to all comers. And he did so with a smile on his lips, a decent regard for his adversaries and the conviction first planted in him by Nelle Reagan during his hardscrabble childhood that whatever happened in life was part of God's plan. The late historian John P. Diggins said of Reagan that he "remedied America of all self-doubt." The question remains, Did he restore, through the force of his personality and the timeliness of his ideas, popular confidence, the prerequisite for national renewal? Or did he unintentionally foster an American exceptionalism bordering on hubris, affording license to spend and borrow without thought of the consequences? That Reagan told us we were capable of great things did not make him exceptional. Sooner or later, every President does this. That he made us believe it testifies to the enduring impact of the life that began a hundred years ago in a most conventional Illinois village.

Smith has been the director of five presidential libraries, including Reagan's. He is currently a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University and is working on a biography of Nelson Rockefeller.

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