10. Ronald Reagan’s conservative philosophy was formed from practical experience.
His guiding political philosophy was the product of his life experiences. He was the only president to pay income tax at the 91% rate, which was the top income tax rate in the early 1950s. He complained that it created disincentives for work and savings. Second, as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, he came face to face with Communist penetration of his industry and became a lifelong opponent of Marxism. When asked by aide Richard Allen how he would characterize his hopes for future relations with the Soviet Union, he shot back, “How about this? We win; they lose.” Third, as spokesman for GE and GE Theater, he traveled the country meeting with workers and management and learning first hand about the inefficiencies of Big Government. As the Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial the week of his funeral, “Mr. Reagan was the most consequential president since FDR because of his ideas.”
9. Ronald Reagan had two full careers prior to entering elective politics which, I believe, contributed to his comfortable manner and easygoing personality.
As he once noted about his less than round the clock office hours, “They say that hard work never hurt anyone, but I say why take the chance?” He already had successful careers in radio, the movies and TV and did not enter elective politics until the age of 55. He was one of a few presidents of the 20th century who had a significant professional life before entering politics. The others would include General Dwight Eisenhower and Professor Woodrow Wilson. Reagan never considered himself a professional politician. He did not run for president to be somebody, but rather to “do things.” He had nothing to prove to anyone.
8. Ronald Reagan was very well prepared to assume the presidency in 1980.
Inaugurated at the age of 69, his work experiences and intellectual preparation were far more varied than most of his predecessors. From the movies he learned to interact with the public and to deal with the demands of fame and stardom. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, he learned how to represent his diverse membership and deal with sometimes autocratic studio heads. His travels with GE gave him time to reflect and think about the great issues of the day. Over the course of several decades, he wrote thousands of issue oriented letters to family and friends and then wrote his own scripts when he hosted his radio program in the mid 1970s. Finally, he served two terms as governor of the largest state in the Union opposite an often hostile legislature. Far from being a neophyte, he had more practical training and intellectual grounding than most new presidents entering office.
7. Reagan’s philosophy had a much greater strain of idealism than most presidents, certainly more than so called conservative presidents.
Far from being a hard boiled realist, he dared to see far more optimistic outcomes for his policies in the course of events. For instance, he believed strongly in freedom and the goodness of the individual which fueled his naturally optimistic nature. He focused his 1976 campaign against an incumbent Republican president on the president’s refusal to meet with the Soviet dissident, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn for fear of offending the Soviet Union. His belief in freedom as a universal imperative led him to implement a foreign policy that could not have been more distinct from détente, the then prevailing philosophy. President George W. Bush has borrowed generously from Reagan’s views in this regard. Finally, he was fond of quoting the radical colonial leader Thomas Paine, “We have it within our power to begin the world all over again,” hardly a conservative sentiment.
6. Reagan broke the “Vietnam Syndrome” of American self doubt, not only by rebuilding U.S. military power, but also by rediscovering and proclaiming American exceptionalism.
He believed Americans are a moral and decent people and that America is a country which supports freedom and democracy abroad. This view was in sharp contrast to the leftist critique, endorsed by John Kerry among others, of the 1960s and 1970s which held that America was a racist, immoral and imperial power. With America’s moral authority restored, he acted on those beliefs with the liberation of Grenada, the bombing of Libya, and the funding of the anti Communist Freedom Fighters in Central America. These were the first substantive American military actions since Vietnam and marked a turning point when America finally began to strike back at its enemies.
George Will has written that “One of the unfortunate intellectual developments of the 19th century, principally in Europe, was the transformation of history into a proper noun. It denoted a vast impersonal force with its own unfolding logic, governed by iron laws of social development…Such theories…mock the idea of great persons, and the belief that the free choices of small groups could knock History out of its preordained grooves.”
Ronald Reagan led one such “small group” that knocked Marxism from its “preordained groove” of world domination. In that belief, he is the quintessential American statesmen.
5. Reagan was an original thinker who thought “outside the box” on numerous policy issues.
In most of his major actions as president — tax cuts, putting Pershing missiles in Europe, liberating Grenada, pursuing strategic defense, rebuilding American military power — Reagan pursued policies distinctly different from what elite opinion or conventional wisdom would have dictated. He was also resolute in pursing those policies in the face of unrelenting opposition. As the New York Times remarked in early 1983, “The stench of failure hangs over the Reagan White House.” Reagan stuck to his guns and was vindicated in the end more often than not.
4. Reagan totally remade the Republican Party in his own image.
Before Reagan, the Republican Party was interested more in the size of the deficit rather than the size of government, in détente more than in freedom and a party hostile to social conservatism. Reagan remade the GOP into the party of tax cuts and smaller government, as proponents of a winning strategy to confront and defeat Communism, and as the party that defends the sanctity of life, especially the unborn. Before his inauguration, Republicans faced a deficit in party identification of 15 to 20 per cent. By the end of his term, the GOP was nearly at parity with the Democrats. In Reagan’s time, there were no blue states and red states, but 44 and then 49 states as well as Democrats and Independents saw the wisdom in what Reagan was preaching.
3. Reagan put aside a lifetime of hostility to the Soviet Union to deal with a man, Mikail Gorbachev, he believed he could work with.
That flexibility, when paired with new U.S. military strength and strong presidential support for anti Communist freedom fighters, resulted in the beginning of the end for Communism as first the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union itself came apart. As former President Bill Clinton once told Reagan, “Too many people in my party are too willing to make a deal with the Soviets. Too many people in your party are never willing to deal with the Soviets. I think you have it just about right.”(Reagan stories about old Soviet Union)
2. Reagan always saw himself as a soldier in a larger cause.
He spoke frequently in the plural as he did in his farewell address when he noted: “We did it. We made a difference. We are stronger as a result of our actions.” He was happy to turn the presidency over to George Bush. In his last Cabinet meeting the day before he left office, he noted the focus on the president elect rather than himself and calmly remarked, “It’s fine. The country is in good hands.” Despite two terms as governor of California and as president of the United States, he never considered himself a professional politician, but rather as a citizen who temporarily occupied the office of the presidency and who did the best he could.
1. Like all great presidents, he leaves a legacy that can be easily summarized: He revitalized the economy, won the Cold War, and made Americans feel confident again.
Not bad. Not bad at all.