The Secrets of Reagan's Success

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I interviewed Ronald Reagan once, on an airplane, during the 1980 presidential campaign. I imagined myself an aggressive young reporter in those days, and I had prepared a series of incendiary questions that I have long since forgotten. Reagan was wearing a brown suit; his red foulard was tied in a Windsor knot. His hair swooped dramatically; his cheeks were an odd wax-museum rouge. We shook hands and came out fighting. At least I did. He cocked his head, smiled and flicked me off his sleeve.

An entirely unnerving experience, but not untypical. Reagan's sunny opacity was legendary, especially when it came to relations with the press. His discipline was legendary too. On the trail that year, the press corps would sometimes leave the room when Reagan began to speak and play liar's poker in the hall, a designated notetaker remaining behind in the unlikely event that the man actually said something new.

With Reagan, it was always so rote and mechanical that it was easy to miss the big picture. It was easy to be infuriated by media whiz Michael Deaver's brilliantly insidious manipulation of the media, and lose the simple power of Reagan's message. Deaver, famously, didn't care what the network reporters said about the President as long as Reagan was pictured in upbeat, patriotic settings, preferably surrounded by American flags. The pictures, he knew, were far more powerful than the words. The gauzy, Morning in America mythmaking apparatus was going full tilt from the moment Reagan entered the White House.

Unlike other Presidents—except, perhaps, for Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson—Reagan came to power as the leader of an ideological movement: in his case, a fierce conservatism forged and tempered by decades of disdain from the nation's moderate media and political establishment. In retrospect, the movement provided a necessary corrective for the slowly corroding industrial-age liberalism favored by the Democrats who controlled Congress. Reagan's followers were so eager for success that they were willing to tolerate some flagrant inconsistencies in his governance. His big 1981 tax cut was followed by two years of large, if undramatized, tax increases. He didn't shrink the size of the government (Bill Clinton was the only recent President to do that). Reagan was a champion of the religious right, but rarely attended church and never paid much more than lip service to the right-to-life movement. He was a critic of government waste, but routinely lavished more money on the military than the Pentagon asked for—and he stubbornly insisted on funding an utterly preposterous missile-defense program that his detractors, and eventually his supporters, called Star Wars.

As it happened—as Hollywood would have seen fit to script it—the only people aside from Reagan who really believed in Star Wars were the military leadership of the Soviet Union. The Zap! Pow! Bam! comic-book defense strategy reinforced Moscow's growing despair about the future and hastened the end of the cold war. And that, finally, is what has proved most galling to the Gipper's ideological opponents: his glossy Hollywood optimism proved more supple than the professional pessimism of the intellectual left. Ultimately, Reagan's sloppy and often insensitive domestic governance will have little impact on his place in history. His willingness to break the law and defy Congress by funding the contras in Nicaragua and surreptitiously attempting to trade arms for hostages with Iran—these will be footnotes as well. Reagan will mostly be remembered for his unyielding opposition to the Soviet Union, for his willingness to call a regime that murdered at least 40 million of its citizens "evil."

In fact, I didn't understand how truly monumental, and morally important, Reagan's anticommunist vision was until I visited the Soviet Union in 1987. My first night there, I was escorted to the Bolshoi Ballet by two minders from the U.S.-Canada Institute. The Russians were thrilled that I had figured out the Cyrillic alphabet and was able to read the program. The young woman on my left rewarded me with a smile—a rare public act in that terrifying regime—and a whispered encouragement: reform was coming. Glasnost and perestroika, she assured me, were real. The minder on my left, a chunky young man, then nudged me with his elbow. "Ronald Reagan. Evil empire," he whispered with dramatic intensity, and shot a glance down to his lap where he had hidden two enthusiastic thumbs up. "Yes!"