Reagan At 90: Still A Repository For Our American Dreams

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Reagan at the dedication ceremony for his presidential library in Simi Valley

It was probably Ronald Reagan's best joke, the one about the boy who wakes up on Christmas morning to find a pile of horse manure under the tree. "With all this manure," the boy says as he grabs a shovel and starts to excavate, "there must be a pony in here somewhere." Parse it and you find a Reagan at every end of the gag. Reagan the boy, the incurable optimist who figured America was great if he said it was so. The Reagan who could shovel it with the best of them.

At 90, in the deep fog of age and Alzheimer's, Reagan has already been gone awhile. But 12 years after he rode out of Washington, his political legacy refuses to stay buried. The $1.6 trillion Bush tax cut currently steaming toward Congress draws inevitable comparisons to Reagan's sweeping 1981 effort (which, in 2001 dollars, was rather larger than Bush's). The ghosts of supply-side Reaganomics still lurk in the heart of George W.'s top economic adviser, Larry Lindsey.

The missile-defense system born under Reagan as "Star Wars" has survived a decade of continuing implausibility to be Bush's first major defense project. Welfare reform and the use of faith-based organizations to do the government's charity work both started under Reagan; indeed, it was the Gipper who first stretched the Republican tent to accommodate the religious right. Today, John Ashcroft is attorney general.

Whether America's rise to fiscal health came from the swings of the '90s' political pendulum or the foundation of the '80s' economic policy that Reagan laid, an optimist like the Gipper might joke that those "failed policies of the past," as Clinton used to call them, would seem to be succeeding after all.

Mention budget deficits, the Cold War or Ollie North, and the man's name can still turn a cocktail party into a shouting match. Between Reagan and Clinton (another political superstar whom his critics call over-credited), is it any wonder that Washington is so divided?

And that doesn't even scratch the famed/scorned Reagan management style — delegative, disengaged, or just plain absent. But if the Alzheimer's diagnosis surprised few, it also gave the history-packed Reagan presidency a strange "Shane" quality. He had done Americans the great favor of making them feel strong and hopeful again, and then he was gone, so fast and so silently, that we were left to debate amongst ourselves how much, exactly, he had done for Americans — and how much we had done for him.

Well? He had won the Cold War, set the Wall to falling, pumped us full of an economics that yanked the country out of recession even as it plunged its government into unprecedented debt. He had stood up for nuclear disarmament — once even for total nuclear disarmament, a monstrous strategic blunder — while rebuilding the nation's military might. He had waved away the noxious, dispiriting odors of Watergate and then dragged us through Iran-Contra, and come through that one smelling surprisingly like a rose. He was our grandfatherly knight in Teflon armor.

Will the real Ronnie Reagan please stand up?

But Reagan the pony — the inner Gipper — was elusive. What color was it? Was there one? Official biographer Edmund Morris spent 13 years at his excavation and emerged with a jarringly turgid work of semi-fiction in which he, Morris, was inserted as a character, witness to all of Reagan's supposedly pivotal moments. Granted unprecedented if superficial access to this great performer of a president, Morris would claim never to have glimpsed Reagan backstage, with the pancake off. Everyone was a mere player in Reagan's show.

There are undisputed truths. Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill., an Abe-like, heartland birthplace that Reagan himself couldn't wait to leave. "There was nothing in those towns," he would say later. His father was a drunk, and money was tight, but young Dutch had a way with a football, and he won an athletic scholarship that paid half his $180 annual tuition at tiny Eureka College. He majored in economics, but his energies went to his old love, football, and his new one, acting. "Nature was trying to tell me something," he recalled thinking after absorbing a play. "Namely, that my heart is a ham loaf."

The ham loaf was probably lucky he wasn't a better actor; as president, we might not have believed him at all. In 1937, after five years knocking around the Midwest announcing local football games, Reagan wangled a trip to California and got himself signed by Warner Brothers. Out of 50-odd mostly forgettable movies over the next four decades, there are perhaps three we remember him by. There was the Gipper in "Knute Rockne, All-American," a role that Reagan lobbied for incessantly before landing the part with some old college gridiron photos. That was Reagan the earnest everyman, the humble (and treacly) American hero. For embittered liberals, there were the co-starring monkeys of "Bedtime for Bonzo." In "Kings Row," though, he did some real acting — amputee Drake McHugh's anguished "Where's the rest of me?" was the high note of his thespian career (and provided the title of his autobiography, along with an oh-so-ready setup for wags).

The making of a conservative

Toss in all the others, an old kit bag of cowboys, fighting men and stand-up guys, and there was more than enough earnest machismo to make a conservative out of anyone watching — and of Reagan himself. He divorced one costar, Jane Wyman, and married another, Nancy Davis. He had spent most of his postwar acting career as a self-professed liberal nettling the studio bosses over actors' unions and serving four fierce terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild. But by the early '50s, with Hollywood going to the Clifts and Brandos and the 43-year-old Reagan's movie career moribund (in part because of his bulldog-liberal politics), his views began to swing rightward in the face of advancing communism and perhaps his own advancing age. Deep in debt, Reagan gamely began humiliating himself with a Vegas variety show. Local press duly noted that Reagan had "no particular act" but a "winning personality."

The real "act" struck like lightning in 1954, and it came from the medium that would transform Americans' lives and America's politics, the medium where all U.S. presidents would soon be made or broken: TV. General Electric offered Reagan a job for $125,000 a year as host and sometime star of "The General Electric Theater." He was a Hollywood face on the small screen, and from 1954 to 1962 the program dominated the Sunday-night ratings and revitalized Reagan's acting career. But it was the off-camera work — part of the gig was to tour GE plants for 10 weeks a year as a traveling spokesman — that made Reagan into a politician. By the end of those eight years, Reagan, by his own account, had visited every one of the company's 139 plants, met all 250,000 employees, spent 4,000 hours talking to them and "enjoyed every whizzing minute of it." He got to press the flesh of the working man; he learned to campaign, and learned he loved it; and he cemented that populist-conservative view of America that he would draw on the rest of his political life.

The role of a lifetime

In 1962, Reagan the new, insistent conservative found himself dumped by GE and out of work. But there was another sponsor ready to put the Gipper on the field: the GOP. He switched his affiliation from Democrat to Republican, started preaching bootstrap conservatism to the (well-paying) party faithful, and in 1964 climbed aboard the doomed campaign of his ideological Moses, Barry Goldwater, giving a stirring speech at the convention. Goldwater sank, but Reagan was remembered, and in '66 the GOP establishment sent him on his audition for the presidency: the governorship of California. In 1970 he would run against the communists; this time it was internal enemies, the Black Panthers and the "the mess at Berkeley." When he stepped down in 1975, he belonged to a party no one trusted (Watergate had left just 20 percent of Americans claiming to be Republicans), but Reagan the digger was just getting warmed up.

By 1976 Reagan had a mission, the same mission his Republican successors have carried — and constantly fumbled — ever since he left: To bring true conservatism to an America that was, after all, truly conservative, wasn't it? "I believe the Republican party represents basically the thinking of the people of this country, if we can get that message across to the people," he said. "I am going to try to do that." He was the Gipper for the job. He took aim at nonbeliever Gerald Ford in 1976 and was nosed out in the primaries, but in 1980, with the Iran hostage bungle hanging in the air, Jimmy Carter was a big target for a true-blue American movie star. Even if that star was 69 — critics were already calling him senile — and talked so tough on the Soviets that more than a few folks worried about what he might do with another football: the nuclear one. But Carter was enough of a fumbler that a fist-pounder seemed like just the man we needed. Reagan cracked age jokes and tapped his toughest rival, the old spook George Bush, for his veep. A stumble in the Iran negotiations (and a neat Republican invention called the misery index) got him a last-minute surge in the polls, and the Grand Old Party finally had its Grand Old Man.

Reagan inherited a nation at least waist-deep in manure. The economy was mired in stagflation and unemployment, the national psyche bruised by Tehran, the world's mightiest military going hollow after two decades of undeclared war. Reagan stepped to the helm of a country as angry and frustrated as he was, and he had a mandate to start digging right away. He began a military shopping spree that would double weapons spending in his first term, and from a Democratic Congress he wrung the largest tax cut in history. He cut welfare and started broad-stroke deregulation, not just of the airlines, which had begun under Carter, but of energy, broadcasting, antitrust, setting in motion a trend of private-sector efficiencies of scale that continues today.

The downside of supply-side

The pill was bitter. It was Reagan who first declared the era of big government over, first broke the back of the New Deal. But Reagan was also entranced by supply-side economics, which told him that red ink didn't matter. Government spending — his champions blame the Democrats — was never seriously curtailed. Budget deficits ballooned at home, along with trade deficits abroad. The suddenly flush Pentagon produced those legendary excesses (remember $500 toilet seats?), and unemployment swelled to 10 percent nationally and 30 or 40 percent in the inner cities, the highest rates seen since the '40s. The economy dove into recession. With the help of Fed chairman Paul Volcker, Reagan beat back inflation, but he was a rich man surrounded by rich advisers, and the gap between the country's haves and have-nots — his darkest and most enduring economic legacy — widened as never before. Under Reagan, America spawned a class not seen since the Depression, big enough again to be named: the homeless.

He had also set in motion the decade of greed. On Wall Street, the Barbarians at the Gate swallowed companies whole and spit out their employees; "big swinging dicks" puffed on cigars and pocketed million-dollar bonuses while the needy slept in doorways all over town. (A decade or so later, of course, the rest of the country would join the stock party and stop minding.) American business fell into chaos, while across the world the lockstep Japanese exported shame with every superior automobile. "What I'd really like to do," Reagan had declared six months into his term, "is go down in history as the president who made Americans believe in themselves again." Yet here was the American Way falling into disrepute.

But Ronald Reagan was always one of fate's favorites. On cue, the economy turned around in time for his reelection, a trouncing of Carter-cursed Walter Mondale. The pain Reagan had inflicted in his first term with a flourish of steroid conservatism turned out to be the impetus for a great merger-and-acquisition shakeout, which was certainly cruel, perhaps unnecessarily so, but just as certainly successful. For every downsized salaryman there was an uptick in efficiency. He remained a staunch believer in free trade and free markets, helping them both along with a tax reform effort in 1986 that Steve Forbes worships today, and left corporate America to fend for itself.

It quickly learned to do so. Oh, those $200 billion budget deficits — and a staggering $2.6 trillion national debt — would not be much punctured until Bill Clinton's first-term tax hikes (bullied into being by a certain Reagan appointee named Alan Greenspan), and they sat on the books until a crop of Reagan disciples stormed Congress in 1995. But by then, both sides stood on the foundation of a sleeker, nimbler, market-driven economy that had been poured under Reagan. Today, the once-fearsome economies — and economics — of Japan and Europe are the dinosaurs, and America's is the model of the age; it was in the Reagan years that this last-man-standing economic superpower found its footing.

The pony emerges

And the military one? Like so many items on the Reagan résumé, the fall of the Soviet Union might well have happened on its own. The "evil empire" had been a mighty façade at least since Kruschev, a termite-infested Potemkin village congenitally incapable of regeneration. We know that now, and maybe Reagan sensed it then. But he never let on. Ronnie Raygun pounded the Soviets with rhetoric and bluffed them (maybe unwittingly, definitely successfully) with the grandiosely unfeasible "Star Wars" missile-defense system. From the start, he was determined to spend them out of the Cold War business, and in a young, progressive Mikhail Gorbachev he correctly spotted a golden opportunity to lead the Communists into oblivion, hand in slowly warming hand. The two got to respect and even like each other a little — who didn't like Reagan a little? — and it was at a low moment in one of their summits that the Gipper told Gorby the one about the boy, the Christmas manure and the shovel. The empire crumbled, and Reagan got to watch. In history, credit can be as simple as being there when it happens. Yes, there was a pony in it after all.

Reagan's boosters always point out the man's diffidence, his courtly nature, his basic humility. They are wise to do so, because if Reagan never took himself too seriously, neither did the rest of us. He was not only a caricaturist's but a comedian's dream. Yet we tolerated it when we learned that Nancy and her astrologer might well be running the country, and went along when he mistook Bruce Springsteen's cynical "Born in the USA" for a patriotic paean. When he brought Yitzhak Rabin to tears with a heartfelt recollection of leading American troops into Poland to free the concentration camp prisoners, or spun a story about cradling a bleeding tailgunner in his arms as the brave man died, we chuckled indulgently. (Reagan sat out the war with bad eyesight, making training films at Hollywood's "Camp Roach.") We forgave him for Iran-Contra — he left office with a record 68 percent approval rating — because when we heard him say, over and over, "I don't recall," most everybody believed him. John Adams called George Washington "the best actor of the presidency we have ever had"; Reagan was better, taking to the role with a Method zeal that was so sincere as to be unwitting. And he was good. If he knew that our nation under him wasn't everything he said it was, he never let on like Carter had. To this day, his critics and champions are equally adamant, equally cocksure.

On Mount Rushmore?

When a small movement emerged to add Reagan's kindly countenance to Mount Rushmore, the idea was laughed out of existence. But Americans may yet look back and decide that the notion is not entirely daft, because Reagan had the size for it. Bookended by small presidents with small legacies, the Communicator in Chief puffed up America and its presidency at a time when the nation craved it. By the end, we were likely to forget our troubles with his behind-every-man wife and her excess of dresses, and with his family, which even by celebrity standards was a train wreck. He had hardly been a dazzling intellect or even, at the end, a competent administrator, but he had answered the call of the crowd — a high compliment in any democracy. When the occasion called for a no-quarter America, he raked Libya with John Wayne words and swift bombs. When it prompted fear, as with his attempted assassination by John Hinckley, Reagan gave his audience stoic aplomb.

In the current era of bulls and booms and U.S. supremacy and the most leisurely of White House scandals, we are of course tempted to go picking away at Reagan, looking for that inner Gipper until we find it or thin air. We do not need an impenetrable president now; we can afford to be disgusted if we want. But nestled among over-televised, over-scrutinized chief executives in a decade of real uncertainties, Reagan was just a little opaque, and a great portion of America was grateful for that. We wanted a patrician grandfather, and he gave us a believable enough one. We wanted a mighty president and a mighty nation, and he presided, lending America a jutting chin for its rivals and a strong face for its mirror. "Let us renew our faith and our hope," Reagan exhorted at his first inaugural. "We have every right to dream heroic dreams." Maybe all we needed was a hoary old actor with a shiny new shovel.