As the nation celebrates Ronald Reagan’s one hundredth birthday, it is worth remembering what a controversial figure Reagan was in his time. Jimmy Carter warned in 1980 that if Reagan were to win the presidency he would “lead us into war.” Senator Alan Cranston from California agreed, claiming that Reagan was a “trigger-happy President with a simplistic and paranoid worldview, leading the nation toward a nuclear collision that could end us all.” Teddy Kennedy calmly observed in 1982 that “the arms race rushes ahead toward nuclear confrontation that could well mean the annihilation of the human race.” Even Richard Nixon chimed in, arguing that Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric and assertive stance toward the Kremlin was dangerous and doomed to fail. “There’s a school of thought that hard-line policies on our part will induce change for the better on their part. I wish that were the case, but it’s just not going to happen” Nixon claimed. Tip O’Neill, arguably the most partisan Speaker of the twentieth century, declared that Reagan, not the Soviet Union, was the focus of evil in the modern world. The Gipper had “no concern, no regard, no care for the little man of America.… And I understand that. Because of his lifestyle, he never meets those people.” O’Neill would later add, in case anyone didn’t get the message, “the evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.” Needless to say, for much of his presidency, Reagan was hardly the beloved figure he is today with the American public. For instance, two years into his presidency Reagan’s approval rating stood at 35%, below Barack Obama’s standing at the same point.
Reagan’s critics feared the man, not in the sense that they feared Richard Nixon, but due to the fact that he represented a radical break with the past—within an hour after being sworn into office, he proclaimed in his inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That one phrase sent a chill down the spine of any unreconstructed New Dealer or New Frontiersman who bothered to tune in, and served notice that the Dewey-Rockefeller-Eisenhower wing of the GOP was dead, replaced by the heirs of the anti-federalists and the Jeffersonians. Reagan proposed to prune the federal government [at least its domestic arm] and return power to the states. In the short term, Reagan failed to deliver on this agenda, blocked by Tip O’Neill’s House of Representatives, although he did succeed in passing significant tax cuts, thereby making taxes and spending the cornerstone of modern American political debate. And, it should be noted, elements of his agenda came to pass with the most far reaching social reform of the modern-era, the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Reagan’s deficits, and the tripling of the national debt that occurred under his watch, forced Americans to confront fundamental issues of fiscal responsibility and the proper role of government. He would have preferred balanced federal budgets, but short of real spending cuts he was not going to accept business as usual. To some extent, Reagan is the reason we are in the position we find ourselves today, because he moved the GOP away from its blind devotion to balanced budgets toward a broader and more principled opposition to big government and its enabler, the Internal Revenue Service. The reckoning has arrived, as many deficit hawks are fond of noting—although the verdict is still out as to whether responsibility and constitutionalism will triumph over our 100 year experiment with progressivism. Should the fiscally responsible constitutionalist approach prevail, then Reagan could well replace FDR as the most significant president behind Washington and Lincoln on those perennial lists of presidential greatness.
Reagan’s foreign policy broke sharply from the past as well. At his very first press conference the new President stated that Richard Nixon’s policy of détente was “a one way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims.” He added, to the horror of his own Secretary of State, “that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat,” in order to attain the goal of world domination. Reagan (along with Margaret Thatcher) stared down a nuclear freeze movement that was aided and abetted by the KGB and the western media; rebuilt the American military; restored the morale of the West through moving rhetoric that boldly distinguished East from West; covertly supported anti-Communist movements around the globe; and proposed a Strategic Defense Initiative, all of which put the geriatrics in the Kremlin on their heels (Or perhaps in their graves. Reagan coldly responded to criticism from leftist Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that he wasn’t reaching out to the Politburo by acidly observing “Pierre, they keep dying on me. You want me to meet the dead ones?”). Ronald Reagan’s radicalism was not limited to his rejection of détente and his hatred for communism—he equally despised the policy of holding civilians hostage to keep the peace through Mutual Assured Destruction. To the despair of many of his fellow conservatives he sought to move the world away from nuclear weapons and the MAD doctrine. He was an anti-nuclear hawk, which many of those closest to him did not understand until well into his presidency. He was a rarity for his time.
Margaret Thatcher believes, as do many of his admirers, that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot. At the same time, Mikhail Gorbachev has been given credit for this achievement by most academics and those in the media. Perhaps Lech Walesa deserves the last word on this:
When talking about Ronald Reagan, I have to be personal. We in Poland took him so personally. Why? Because we owe him our liberty. This can’t be said often enough by people who lived under oppression for half a century, until communism fell in 1989…. I distinguish between two kinds of politicians. There are those who view politics as a tactical game…. There are, however, leaders for whom politics is a means of defending and furthering values. For them, it is a moral pursuit. They do so because the values they cherish are endangered. They’re convinced that there are values worth living for, and even values worth dying for. Otherwise they would consider their life and work pointless. Only such politicians are great politicians and Ronald Reagan was one of them.
Ronald Reagan was a throwback figure in many ways—a man perhaps more at home in nineteenth century America, the America portrayed in many of his movies. He preferred to be riding one of his aforementioned horses out at his ranch than sitting in the Oval Office. Nonetheless, Reagan did what William F. Buckley or Barry Goldwater could not do—he transformed conservatism in modern America into a powerful mainstream movement. This was a remarkable achievement for a movement that was written off as all but dead by mid-century, and an impressive achievement for a man described by friend and foe alike as a kind and gentle person who operated utterly without guile. Reagan’s conservatism was of a different stripe—his eternal faith in the wisdom of the common man and his frequent invocation of Thomas Paine’s declaration that “we have it within our power to begin the world over again” set him apart from many of his scolding conservative contemporaries. Twenty-two years after leaving the White House, Reagan’s legacy remains a work in progress. His heirs are everywhere, and they just might win a few more for the Gipper.
Stephen Knott is Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College . He also teaches in the Ashbrook Center’s Master of American History and Government Program at Ashland University.