Reagan at 100 casts shadow over Republican PartyBy Dan Balz, Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011
On the 100th anniversary of his birth, Ronald Reagan is remembered as a transformative president, the creator of the contemporary Republican Party and the very definition of conservatism. He might also be as misunderstood by some of his followers as he is underappreciated by his detractors.
Reagan, who died in 2004, is the object of both mythmaking and revisionism. As his presidency has undergone examination and reevaluation by conservative and liberal scholars, his place in history has grown larger.
His iconic stature among conservatives is a source of inspiration for a Republican Party that, despite its victories in November, still hungers to recapture the high points of his presidency. Yet to many Republicans, Reagan nostalgia is an obstacle to the party's hopes of moving forward in a different time with challenges different from those of the 1980s.
Reagan's leadership style blended conviction, flexibility, toughness and optimism. Those who try to pinpoint a single attribute to explain Reagan's success often overlook other facets of his political persona that were equally significant. And although he helped fuel the conservative ascendancy, he was not, in the estimation of scholars, a conventional conservative, certainly not by today's standards.
Steven F. Hayward, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of two volumes under the title "The Age of Reagan," said that accepting the 40th president's unique qualities is key to understanding his impact and influence. "His particular brand of conservatism, was idiosyncratic," Hayward said, adding: "He was unconventional even from a conservative point of view."
Sean Wilentz, a liberal historian at Princeton University and the author of "The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008," said Reagan's New Deal roots, California perspective and conservative convictions combined to form a package that cannot be easily replicated. "He was a Reaganite," Wilentz said. "Maybe the only Reaganite."
Lou Cannon, the journalist and Reagan biographer whose book "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" was on President Obama's holiday reading list, questioned whether Reagan would be comfortable with the elements of today's Republican Party who demand near-purity as the measure of a true conservative.
"As Reagan has become more broadly acceptable to the American people, and as the scholars give him higher rankings, the Republicans want to hold on to this pure ideological vision of a Reagan that really never existed, or if it did exist, didn't sustain one week in Sacramento or Washington," he said.
In the reinterpretations of Reagan, some liberals have sought to characterize him, as Hayward wrote recently in National Review, as a "crypto-liberal." Reagan sought to reverse the flow of power to Washington that began with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom he voted four times, but he did not attempt to dismantle key elements of the New Deal and lived with big deficits throughout his presidency.
Reagan's conservative convictions were never in question. But he could differentiate between principles and individual policy battles. He made tax cuts a central component of Republican economics but accepted tax increases as governor and as president. He signed a liberal abortion bill as governor of California, though he was a strong opponent of abortion as president. He called the Soviet Union the "evil empire" but later toned down his rhetoric as he moved to negotiate with the Soviets to limit nuclear arms.
Wilentz found the Reagan record anything but one-dimensional. "I'm not saying he was a liberal," Wilentz said. "He wasn't. He wasn't even a moderate. He moved the country in a conservative way, and the country has not been the same since. . . . He cleared the way for liberalism to be on the defensive."
Makings of a president
The arc of Reagan's early career is well known: radio announcer, Grade B actor, Screen Actors Guild president, pitchman for General Electric, and then, in 1964, a debut on the national political stage with a televised speech for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater titled "A Time for Choosing."
He was elected governor of California in 1966, defeating two-term Democratic Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr. He was reelected in 1970. In 1976, he challenged President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination, carrying the fight all the way to the GOP convention in Kansas City, Mo., and losing narrowly.
"If he doesn't run in '76, he doesn't run in '80. And if he doesn't run in '80, the Republican Party and the world would be vastly different," said Craig Shirley, who has written books about both the '76 and '80 Reagan campaigns.
By 1980, he was the acknowledged leader of a conservative movement and captured the Republican nomination, though he was opposed by a considerable part of the GOP establishment.
At the Republican convention in Detroit, he spent days negotiating with Ford over what was described as a virtual co-presidency in the hope of luring his former rival onto the ticket. When those negotiations failed, he quickly tapped George H.W. Bush, a paragon of the GOP establishment who had finished second in the primaries, as his running mate. In a single stroke, he unified his party and, more significantly, helped trigger the demise of the party's once-strong moderate wing.
In that 1980 campaign, Reagan not only consolidated the conservative coalition but also redefined what it meant to be a conservative.
"Ronald Reagan did not invent all of the elements of modern conservatism," said William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who served as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration. "He didn't invent any of them. What he did was to integrate them - not just put them together like beads on a string, but integrate them into an overall narrative that had some coherence and some real resonance."
Reagan changed the Republican approach to economic and fiscal policy by combining his call for smaller government and less power for Washington with a pro-growth message that emphasized deep tax cuts - a program that Bush called "voodoo economics."
He embraced fierce nationalism in foreign policy - his opposition to the Panama Canal treaty provided the spark for his challenge to Ford - and reversed the policy of detente with the Soviets that was a product of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford era. His outlook was grounded in anti-communism, which until the collapse of the Soviet Union was the strongest strand binding the conservative coalition together.
Of equal importance to building a conservative movement, he brought social and religious conservatives - symbolized by the rise of the Moral Majority under the Rev. Jerry Falwell - into the coalition in a way no previous Republican leader had done, even though he rarely attended church. In a memorable appearance in 1980, he told a gathering of religious broadcasters, "You can't endorse me, but I can endorse you."
The coalition not only united the Republican Party but also gave birth to a new class of GOP voters: Reagan Democrats.
Reagan easily unseated Jimmy Carter in 1980. The most memorable line from his first inaugural address underscored the core of his conservative philosophy: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
Yet there were many compromises that seemed to belie those principles. He pushed through a major reduction in income tax rates in 1981 but agreed to legislation the next year that partially offset those cuts with other tax increases. The deal included prospective spending cuts that never materialized.
He appointed a bipartisan commission to fix Social Security and accepted a package that included tax increases and cuts in benefits. In 1986, he signed a major overhaul of the federal tax code that further lowered individual rates but also broadened the tax base and eliminated loopholes. In his second term, he signed an immigration bill that included an amnesty provision, anathema to conservatives today.
"Reagan had a strong small-business, small-government, pro-business, pro-private-sector, pro-national-security philosophy with a lot of the old so-called family values," said Ken Duberstein, who was White House chief of staff in Reagan's second term. "But the reality of governing for Reagan was that he was the ultimate pragmatist."
Cannon uses the word "practical" rather than "pragmatic" to describe Reagan's governing style. "He's a conviction politician and knows where he wants to get," Cannon said. "But he knows you don't get there in a straight line."
Reagan was always prepared to buck the establishment, whether that was the opinion of elites, the foreign policy establishment or his own State Department, which opposed inclusion of the now-famous line "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" in Reagan's 1987 speech in Berlin.
He promoted a space-based missile defense, which was derided by critics as a "Star Wars" plan. He promoted increases in the defense budget that even some congressional Republicans felt were too big and too confrontational. He had a utopian vision of a world without nuclear weapons that many in the foreign policy establishment found hopelessly naive.
He was sunny and amiable, a president who delegated the hard work and who joked, "It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?" His detractors thought him simple or simple-minded. Yet he was an astute politician and a tough negotiator. "I had no idea how shrewd he was politically," Wilentz said. "I think I was captive of not just the liberal idea but in the media, too, that he delegated a great deal, that he was more a symbol than a political leader in the larger sense."
Duberstein said "there's a romantic notion that everything was wonderful" during Reagan's two terms from 1981 to 1989, summed up in the 1984 campaign slogan "Morning in America." Instead, there were controversies (the Iran-contra scandal), crises (the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 service members) and disappointments (the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the breakdown of the summit with the Soviets in Reykjavik). His party lost two dozen House seats in the 1982 midterms, and the GOP lost the Senate in 1986.
His domestic policies were controversial, considered harsh and punitive by Democrats. He also drew criticism from conservatives, who saw Reagan as insufficiently committed to the principles he espoused, and from more moderate Republicans in Congress. "In his diaries, he complains more about Republicans than Democrats," Hayward said.
Too much reminiscence?
Almost two years ago, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, warned Republicans not to wallow in nostalgia for the Reagan years.
"I don't think President Reagan, if he was a leader of our party today, would be nostalgic about the past," he said in a recent e-mail explaining his comments. "He would be speaking about the future."
The United States of 2011 is a far different country from the one that elected Reagan, and the core policies of Reaganism have lost some of their potency. Combating threats from Islamic radicalism is not the same as fighting communism. Tax rates have been cut dramatically, and Republicans now focus as much attention on preventing those rates from rising as advocating deeper reductions. On some social issues, particularly gay rights and same-sex marriage, public attitudes are shifting toward greater tolerance.
"It's a different era," said Patrick Buchanan, who was an adviser to Reagan. "You've got to have a different formula. The Republican Party is frozen in the past in many ways."
Yet nostalgia for Reagan continues. In the 2008 presidential campaign, candidates and voters alike talked about finding another Reagan - or embodying what Reagan had come to mean. The party probably will go through a repeat version of that once the 2012 nomination battle begins in earnest.
The AEI's Hayward said he sympathizes with conservatives who have adhered rigidly to the Reagan doctrine on issues of taxes and the size of government. "A lot of conservatives feel frustrated that, except for the Reagan years, they're continuing to lose the long-term battle with liberals over the size of government, over the direction of the culture. So they're digging in their heels more than they would have 20 or 30 years ago."
But Ken Khachigian, a Republican strategist who wrote speeches for Reagan, said conservatives "need to be clear-eyed about Reagan" and how he sought to implement the principles he espoused. What Republicans need, he said, is the "flexibility to work within those principles on issues they need to address in modern 21st-century America."
Republican pollster John McLaughlin recalled a survey he conducted shortly after Reagan's landslide reelection victory in 1984 that asked people why they voted for Reagan. Being a conservative was not the top answer. Instead, people focused on an improved economy and a sense of renewed American pride.
McLaughlin said he told a conservative friend that Reagan was reelected not because he was a conservative but because his conservative policies succeeded.
The tension between today's GOP establishment and the tea party movement underscores the challenge ahead for the party of Reagan. Some Republicans see the tea party activists as his natural descendants. Others see them as ignoring the appeal of Reagan to conservatives of many stripes.
"Commentators who hail Reagan as heroic today would have been apoplectic over his views on immigration, record on deficits and his personal relationship with Tip O'Neill," the Democrat who was then speaker of the House, Nick Ayers, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said in an e-mail. "But these issues were as much a part of his transformational presidency as battling the Cold War, cutting taxes, ushering in an age of devolution or revising the economy."
Charlie Black, a GOP strategist who was part of Reagan's 1980 campaign team, offered advice to those who will seek the White House in 2012. "People have warm feelings about Reagan, but he's gone," he said. "If you're out running for the Republican nomination for president, you have to pay homage to Reagan, but you better be talking about yourself and your policies and what you're going to do."
That is, after all, the way Reagan did it.
*******Five myths about Ronald Reagan
By Edmund Morris
Friday, February 4, 2011
It has been argued that Ronald Reagan was a myth himself, a construct of his own and other people's imaginings, rather than an extraordinary American about whom some untruths are told. The sentimental colossus his acolytes are trying to erect today, with gilded pecs, red-painted smile and an NRA-approved pistol in each manly fist, bears no resemblance to the man I knew: in private a person of no ego and little charisma, in public a statesman of formidable purpose.
1. He was a bad actor.
Well, yes and no. Most of the movies he made as a Warner Bros. contract player are unwatchable by persons of sound mind. When he was president, it was easy to laugh at them. The spectacle of the leader of the free world, a.k.a. Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft, deploying an enormous ray gun against an airborne armada was especially hilarious in 1983, the year he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, that vaporizer of foreign nuclear missiles. "All right, Hayden - focus that inertia projector on 'em and let 'em have it!"
Even when Reagan believed he was acting well, as in "Kings Row," he betrayed infallible signs of thespian mediocrity: an unwillingness to listen to other performers and an inability to communicate thoughts. Now that he is dead, however, one feels an odd tenderness for the effort he put into every role - particularly in early movies, when he struggled to control a tendency of his lips to writhe around his too-rapid speech.
Ironically, he was transformed into a superb actor when he took on the roles of governor of California, presidential candidate and president of the United States. Then, as never in his movies, he became authoritative, authentic, irresistible to eye and ear. His two greatest performances, in my opinion, were at the Republican National Convention in 1976, when he effortlessly stole Gerald Ford's thunder as nominee and made the delegates regret their choice, and at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1985, when he delivered the supreme speech of his presidency.
I asked him once if he had any nostalgia for the years he was nuzzling up to Ann Sheridan and Doris Day on camera. He gestured around the Oval Office. "Why should I? I have the biggest stage in the world, right here!"
2. He was but a movie-set soldier in World War II.
It's true that Reagan spent virtually all the war years flying a desk at the First Motion Picture Unit, USAAF, in Culver City. But that hardly means he did not passionately want to fight for his country overseas. Army doctors found his vision to be so defective, at "7/200 bilateral," that a tank could advance within seven feet of him before he could identify it as Japanese. His Warner Bros. colleague Eddie Albert, a veteran of the Pacific War, later told me about presenting Reagan with a souvenir from the bloodbath of Tarawa. "I've never forgotten the way he looked. Like I'd humiliated him."
In the spring of 1945, Capt. Reagan, as the FMPU's intelligence officer, spent weeks processing raw color footage from the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The images so burned into his brain that later in life - quite understandably - he imagined he had been there at Ohrdruf and Buchenwald. He kept one of those Army reels to show to each of his children in early adolescence, so that they could learn about man's inhumanity to man. Ask Patti. Ask Ron.
3. He was warm-hearted.
No. But Reagan wasn't cold - except in his detestation of totalitarianism - so much as cool, in the way a large, calm lake is cool. Like many another natural leader (George Marshall and Charles de Gaulle come to mind), he viewed those who clustered around him abstractedly. He registered audiences rather than individuals. Reagan intimates have confessed to me that they were never sure he knew who the hell they were.
His three younger children have publicly stated that there were times (decades before any rumors of dementia) when he treated them as complete strangers. As for his marriage to Nancy, I'll note only that she was the fourth short, tough, street-smart woman he dreamily depended on to organize his everyday life, the others being his mother, Nelle Reagan; his first fiancee, Margaret Cleaver; and his first wife, Jane Wyman. He had no close friends. And until young Ron reminded him, it didn't occur to him to put a headstone on either of his parents' graves.
4. He was only a campaign Christian.
On the contrary, Reagan was a "practical Christian," that being the name of a mainly Midwestern, social-work-oriented movement when he was growing up. At 11, young Dutch had an epiphany, prompted by the sight of his alcoholic father lying dead drunk on the front porch of the family house in Dixon, Ill. In a moving passage of autobiography, Reagan wrote: "Seeing his arms spread out as if he were crucified - as indeed he was - his hair soaked with melting snow, snoring as he breathed, I could feel no resentment against him." It was the season of Lent, and his mother, a devotee of the Disciples of Christ, put a comforting novel in his hand: "That Printer of Udell's" by Harold Bell Wright. Dutch read it and told her, "I want to declare my faith and be baptized." He was, by total immersion, on June 21, 1922.
I read a speckled copy of that book in the Library of Congress. Almost creepily, it tells the story of a handsome Midwestern boy who makes good for the sins of his father by becoming a practical Christian and a spellbinding orator. He develops a penchant for brown suits and welfare reform, marries a wide-eyed girl (who listens adoringly to his speeches) and wins election to public office in Washington.
Shy about his faith as an adult, Reagan was capable of conventional pieties like all American politicians. He attended few church services as president. But on occasion, before critical meetings, you would see him draw aside and mumble prayers.
5. He was an "amiable dunce."
Yeah, right, Clark Clifford. Ronald Reagan only performed successfully in six different careers: radio sportscaster, movie actor, trade union president, corporate spokesman, two-term governor and two-term president of the United States. Lucky for him he wasn't hampered by Jimmy Carter's intelligence!
The Gipper, The Iron Lady & Disaster Economics
22 January 2008
Five myths about Ronald Reagan's legacy
By Will Bunch
Friday, February 4, 2011
On Sunday, America celebrates the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, whose presidency is a touchstone for the modern conservative movement. In 2011, it is virtually impossible for a major Republican politician to succeed without citing Reagan as a role model. But much of what today's voters think they know about the 40th president is more myth than reality, misconceptions resulting from the passage of time or from calculated attempts to rebuild or remake Reagan's legacy. So, what are we getting wrong about the Gipper?
1. Reagan was one of our most popular presidents.
It's true that Reagan is popular more than two decades after leaving office. A CNN/Opinion Research poll last month gave him the third-highest approval rating among presidents of the past 50 years, behind John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. But Reagan's average approval rating during the eight years that he was in office was nothing spectacular - 52.8 percent, according to Gallup. That places the 40th president not just behind Kennedy, Clinton and Dwight Eisenhower, but also Lyndon Johnson and George H.W. Bush, neither of whom are talked up as candidates for Mount Rushmore.
During his presidency, Reagan's popularity had high peaks - after the attempt on his life in 1981, for example - and huge valleys. In 1982, as the national unemployment rate spiked above 10 percent, Reagan's approval rating fell to 35 percent. At the height of the Iran-Contra scandal, nearly one-third of Americans wanted him to resign.
In the early 1990s, shortly after Reagan left office, several polls found even the much-maligned Jimmy Carter to be more popular. Only since Reagan's 1994 disclosure that he had Alzheimer's disease - along with lobbying efforts by conservatives, such as Grover Norquist's Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which pushed to rename Washington's National Airport for the president - has his popularity steadily climbed.
2. Reagan was a tax-cutter.
Certainly, Reagan's boldest move as president was his 1981 tax cut, a sweeping measure that slashed the marginal rate on the wealthiest Americans from 70 percent to 50 percent. The legislation also included smaller cuts in lower tax brackets, as well as big breaks for corporations and the oil industry. But the following year, as the economy was mired in recession and the federal deficit was spiraling out of control, even groups such as the Business Roundtable lobbied Reagan to raise taxes. And he did: The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 was, at the time, the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history.
Ultimately, Reagan signed measures that increased federal taxes every year of his two-term presidency except the first and the last. These included a higher gasoline levy, a 1986 tax reform deal that included the largest corporate tax increase in American history, and a substantial raise in payroll taxes in 1983 as part of a deal to keep Social Security solvent. While wealthy Americans benefitted from Reagan's tax policies, blue-collar Americans paid a higher percentage of their income in taxes when Reagan left office than when he came in.
3. Reagan was a hawk.
Long before he was elected president, Reagan predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse because of communism's inherent corruption and inefficiency. His forecast proved accurate, but it is not clear that his military buildup moved the process forward. Though Reagan expanded the U.S. military and launched new weapons programs, his real contributions to the end of the Cold War were his willingness to negotiate arms reductions with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his encouragement of Gorbachev as a domestic reformer. Indeed, a USA Today poll taken four days after the fall of the Berlin Wall found that 43 percent of Americans credited Gorbachev, while only 14 percent cited Reagan.
With the exception of the 1986 bombing of Libya, Reagan also disappointed hawkish aides with his unwillingness to retaliate militarily for terrorism in the Middle East. According to biographer Lou Cannon, the president called the death of innocent civilians in anti-terror operations "terrorism itself."
In 1987, Reagan aide Paul Bremer, later George W. Bush's point man in Baghdad, even argued that terrorism suspects should be tried in civilian courts. "A major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are - criminals - and to use democracy's most potent tool, the rule of law, against them," Bremer said. In 1988, Reagan signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which stated that torture could be used under "no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever."
4. Reagan shrank the federal government.
Reagan famously declared at his 1981 inauguration that "in the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." This rhetorical flourish didn't stop the 40th president from increasing the federal government's size by every possible measure during his eight years in office.
Federal spending grew by an average of 2.5 percent a year, adjusted for inflation, while Reagan was president. The national debt exploded, increasing from about $700 billion to nearly $3 trillion. Many experts believe that Reagan's massive deficits not only worsened the recession of the early 1990s but doomed his successor, George H.W. Bush, to a one-term presidency by forcing him to abandon his "no new taxes" pledge.
The number of federal employees grew from 2.8 million to 3 million under Reagan, in large part because of his buildup at the Pentagon. (It took the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton to trim the employee rolls back to 2.7 million.) Reagan also abandoned a campaign pledge to get rid of two Cabinet agencies - Energy and Education - and added a new one, Veterans Affairs.
5. Reagan was a conservative culture warrior.
Reagan's contributions to the culture wars of the 1980s were largely rhetorical and symbolic. Although he published a book in 1983 about his staunch opposition to abortion (overlooking the fact that he had legalized abortion in California as governor in the late 1960s), he never sought a constitutional ban on abortion. In fact, Reagan began the odd practice of speaking to anti-abortion rallies by phone instead of in person - a custom continued by subsequent Republican presidents. He also advocated prayer in public schools in speeches, but never in legislation.
In 1981, Reagan unintentionally did more than any other president to prevent the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling from being overturned when he appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. O'Connor mostly upheld abortion rights during her 25 years as a justice.
No wonder that home-schooling advocate Michael Ferris was one of many right-wing activists complaining about Reagan by the end of his presidency, writing that his White House "offered us a bunch of political trinkets."*******
Today's Republicans, staying in the shadow of Ronald Reagan
By Karen Tumulty, Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011
"Great men have two lives," the diplomat Adolf Berle once observed, "one which occurs while they work on this Earth; a second which begins at the day of their death and continues as long as their ideas and conceptions remain powerful."
Berle was speaking in May 1945, the month after Franklin D. Roosevelt died, and his words captured the enduring influence that FDR would exert over Democratic politics and liberal ideology for the half-century to follow. In 2011, they could just as easily apply to the totemic force that Ronald Reagan continues to hold over the right on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
These days, no Republican with national ambitions will miss an opportunity to remind us of his or her Reaganesque bona fides. Reagan's precepts of a smaller government, a bigger military, lower taxes and conservative social policies demand absolute fealty.
The irony is that Reagan would not have become such a transformational figure if he had not challenged the political orthodoxy of his own time. His self-declared legatees invoke his name as a pledge to do the opposite, a reassurance that they will not venture beyond what has become conventional thinking in the GOP. What starts as a touchstone, however, can become a millstone, if history is any indication.
The power of the Reagan dogma has grown in the years since the 40th president left the scene. In 1994, when Republican Mitt Romney was challenging Democrat Edward M. Kennedy for his Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts, he declared during a debate: "Look, I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush." But the evolved Romney now refers to Reagan as "my hero."
"I believe that our party's ascendancy began with Ronald Reagan's brand of visionary and courageous leadership," he has said.
Meanwhile, former House speaker Newt Gingrich has been traveling the country screening "Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny," a feature-length DVD tribute narrated by the possible 2012 presidential contender and his wife, Callista.
The current generation of Republican leaders came of age as the GOP was caught in two struggles: an internal one, between its conservative and moderate wings, and a broader one, between Reagan's philosophy and FDR's.
Some boast of the scars they endured for the Gipper in that fight. In his new memoir, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty recalls passing out campaign literature for Reagan on the liberal University of Minnesota campus in 1979. "My simple act of offering pro-Reagan brochures was viewed by many on campus as politically intolerable," he writes. "People shouted at me, and one student actually spit on my shoes."
During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-and-possibly-future candidate Mike Huckabee was catching flak for straying from conservative principles. So he framed his record as Arkansas governor this way: "Everywhere I went, I had people protesting me and screaming and yelling and doing demonstrations because I had cut government. But I stayed faithful to the things that Ronald Reagan stayed faithful to."
The president's true believers demanded: "Let Reagan be Reagan." So Reagan himself would surely be surprised to hear how often and selectively he gets reshaped today.
What to say to the suggestion that an Alaska governor who served half a term and then starred in a reality television show might lack the gravitas to be president?
"You know, I agree with that, that those standards have to be high for someone who would ever want to run for president," Sarah Palin sarcastically told Chris Wallace on Fox News last year. "Like, wasn't Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn't he in 'Bedtime for Bonzo'?"
Perhaps the closest forebear to Reagan and the political hero worship he inspired is a president whose portrait Reagan hung in his own Oval Office: Andrew Jackson, the hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, who was nicknamed "Old Hickory" for his toughness and transformed the politics of his day.
Jackson, a Democrat, ran for president as an outsider, gaining a plurality of the popular vote in 1824 but losing the race in subsequent balloting in the House of Representatives. He won the next two elections by landslides.
Jackson battled the elites of the young nation and shut down the fraud-ridden Second Bank of the United States. He demanded that the union of states be held together at any cost. But his name in history has been stained by his hostility toward the growing anti-slavery movement and his forced removal of Indian tribes from their lands.
"For almost 40 years in America, how you felt about that one man told you pretty much all you needed to know about how you felt about everything else," historian Richard Norton Smith said in an interview.
Like Reagan, Jackson was succeeded by his vice president, Martin Van Buren, who was elected in 1836 largely on the strength of his predecessor's popularity. So dominant was Jackson's brand that James K. Polk, elected in 1844, styled himself "Young Hickory," and Franklin Pierce, who won in 1852, was "Young Hickory of the Granite Hills."
The dilution of that political bloodline became evident in more than nicknames; Pierce is generally regarded as one of the most mediocre presidents in history.
Even Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, drew upon Jackson's legacy. In April 1861, as mobs in Baltimore attempted to block the movement of northern troops through their city to the capital, some of the city's prominent citizens urged Lincoln to let the South secede.
The 16th president retorted: "The rebels attack Fort Sumter, and your citizens attack troops sent to the defense of the Government, and the lives and property in Washington, and yet you would have me break my oath and surrender the Government without a blow. There is no Washington in that - no Jackson in that - no manhood nor honor in that."
Yet, as with Reagan's, Jackson's popularity was something that mystified the intelligentsia of his day, Smith said. "They could not understand his enormous, enduring mass appeal."
Historians say there are both benefits and dangers for aspiring leaders who so identify with the icons of the recent past.
Those icons' enduring appeal does not come from their records or their policies, which often contradicted their principles. Reagan, for instance, engaged the superpower he had called an evil empire, raised taxes and left behind what was at that time a record deficit.
Instead, these figures loom so large for the kind of sunny, forward-looking leadership they offered and the extraordinary connections they forged with the country.
"People desperately need that kind of attachment to someone who gives them the sense of hope and possibility," said presidential historian Robert Dallek. But that can be "a confining thing" for the next generation of leaders, who more often than not face a different set of problems that demand different solutions, said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Roosevelt was a case in point, as described by William E. Leuchtenburg in his book, "In the Shadow of FDR."
"Each of his successors has known that if he did not walk in FDR's footsteps, he ran the risk of having it said that he was not a Roosevelt but a Hoover," the predecessor whose policies are often blamed for deepening the Great Depression, Leuchtenburg wrote. "Yet to the extent that he did copy FDR, he lost any chance of marking out his own claim to recognition."
In the years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt became known as FDR, Democratic presidents would be called by their three initials, would be measured by what they had accomplished in their first 100 days and would strive to sum up their philosophies in a phrase as catchy as "New Deal." As Leuchtenburg noted, even their wives "had to bear the onus of contrast to Eleanor Roosevelt."
That standard was still alive as late as 1991, when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was called a "warmed-over Republican" for the brand of centrist politics he was preaching. "When I was a boy," Clinton replied, "I lived with a grandfather who thought he was going to Roosevelt when he died."
Clinton's presidency, however, represented a turn away from the New Deal approach of bigger government and deeper social programs. He ended welfare as we knew it, put more people in prison, balanced the budget and proclaimed that "the era of big government is over." He also became the first Democrat since FDR to be elected to a second term.
That may prove most instructive to those who now lay claim to Reagan's mantle. A political legacy is not a prescription for a set of policies; it is a set of values and principles. The challenge for today's leaders is not so much hewing to what Reagan did in the 1980s, but figuring out where he might lead in the 21st century.
The Gipper, The Iron Lady & Disaster Economics
22 January 2008