A president whose optimism earned him a place in history

He was a product of simpler times, but Ronald Reagan's administration gave birth to the politics of the television age, writes Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent US

If you seek his monument, look around. In Washington there is Ronald Reagan National Airport and the vast Ronald Reagan International Trade Centre. Across the rest of the country, there are stretches of Ronald Reagan highway and Ronald Reagan plazas. Soon, if the Republicans in Congress who venerate him have their way, his face will appear in everybody's pocket, adorning the humble dime.

If the measure is approved, the 40th president will share the 10 cents coin with Franklin D Roosevelt, the sole president, arguably, over the past century to have done more to change America and the world. But perhaps the greatest monument to Mr Reagan is the White House itself: not the physical building with its handsome colonnade and neo-classical grace, but the White House of political shorthand, denoting the administration of the day. Imitation, it is said, is the sincerest form of flattery. At the moment of his death Mr Reagan lives on today above all as the animating model for the 43rd president, George Bush.

The parallels are imperfect, but uncanny nonetheless. Mr Reagan improbably rode into the highest political office as a movie star from Hollywood. If anything, Mr Bush, and the cowboy image thrust upon him, carry the notion a step further. Mr Bush models himself not on his father, but on the man who preceded his father. Like Mr Reagan, Mr Bush has governed from the right. Both men are noted for their fondness for the big picture.

Like Mr Reagan, this president prides himself for having "the vision thing". The details, however important, can be left to others. Like Mr Reagan, Mr Bush lacks an intellectual curiosity. Last but not least, both men have had the great good fortune to be frequently underestimated by their opponents during their ascent to power.

A quarter of a century ago they sneered at Mr Reagan, just as they sneer at Mr Bush today. "An aimiable dunce", was the considered judgement of Clark Clifford, the worldly consigliere of Democratic presidents for three decades, at one of those Georgetown dinner parties that once were the pinnacle of the Washington social scene.

Mr Clifford was speaking in September 1981, when such was the liberal orthodoxy about the former California governor who had captured the White House. How easy it was to mock about this genial ingenue, with his well known reliance on scripts and a world view that did not extend beyond a set of cue cards. Later, the prevailing view was even more brutal, that Mr Reagan was simply out of it; at the helm of a three-quarters detached presidency, in which Nancy Reagan and her astrologer pulled the strings.

Under Mr Reagan, the teleguided presidency of the 21st century truly began. He was the first chief executive sealed in a bubble, whose every utterance and every step was scripted, for whom presentation was everything, style has supplanted substance and armies of handlers and minders made sure that nothing was left to chance. They called him the "great communicator". The description was faint praise, carrying the implication that it didn't matter what was in the package, as long as the wrapping paper was pretty.

Mr Reagan could come across as the ultimate hands-off president, unknowing and uncaring as the gap beween rich and poor grew. His second term witnessed an epidemic of Wall Street greed that prefigured the scandals of the Bush era, as well as a savings and loan bank debacle that cost the US taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars.

Foreign policy

Seen through a certain prism, his foreign policy too was equally uncaring and damaging. It was the Reagan administration whose support for Saddam Hussein arguably set in motion the events which led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq ordered by Mr Bush. Mr Reagan was an earlier US president who give free reign to Israel, with its 1982 invasion of Lebanon (which, in turn, led to the worst day of his presidency when a suicide bomber blew up a US barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines.) Or consider Central America, how his administration fomented civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua - the latter leading to the Iran-Contra scandal which almost wrecked his second term, and which he only survived because the humbling defence that he hadn't a clue what was going on was all too credible to the public. Then was the ludicrous invasion of Grenada, ordered as much as anything to divert attention from the tragedy in Beirut a day or so earlier.

These are harsh complaints, and grievous mistakes. But somehow they are beside the point. Mr Reagan is best judged by two different measures. The first is the difference between the America he inherited in January 1981 and the America he bequeathed to George Bush senior eight years later. The second is the change he wrought to US politics, the US economy and to the world.

At the end of the Carter presidency, the country was at a low ebb indeed. Inflation was rampant and interest rates were sky-high. The memory of the Vietnam War was still fresh, and American impotence had been underscored once more by the hostage crisis in Iran. At first, Mr Reagan's "aw shucks" smile and simple certitudes seemed merely to wish away the problems. His harsh anti-Soviet rhetoric came across as dangerous swagger. Just as with his soulmate Margaret Thatcher in Britain, it is easy to forget how unpopular he was in those first few years.

But then the tide turned. His close brush with death at the hands of a would-be assassin in March 1981 won him much early sympathy. America had what it loved most dearly, a hero with a sense of humour. "Honey, I forgot to duck", and "I hope all you doctors are Republicans", were just two Reagan wisecracks of the time, exquisitely timed and perfectly delivered, for which he will be remembered.

By 1983, inflation was subsiding, the economy took off and, in 1984, Mr Reagan's victory over Walter Mondale was among the greatest landslides in American political history. But the changes he wrought go far beyond two massive election victories and the restoration of his country's faith that it was indeed "a shining city on a hill" for the rest of mankind.

American politics have been indelibly marked by the Reagan era. The seeds of the "Republican revolution" might have been sown by Barry Goldwater. But the arrival of Mr Reagan truly sealed the transformation. Like Mrs Thatcher, he shifted the entire spectrum of his country's politics to the right and, thus far at least, irrevocably.

If Tony Blair is the child of Mrs Thatcher, Bill Clinton is the child of Mr Reagan. Just as "Old Labour" was destroyed by Mrs Thatcher, so the Democrats had to move to the centre to win power. When Mr Clinton slipped towards the left, he was punished by the loss of Congress in 1994.

The former speaker Newt Gingrich has long since departed the scene, but the Republican grip on the House remains, an enduring legacy of the Reagan era.

The 40th president also changed the world. The Cold War did not end and the Soviet Union did not collapse on Reagan's watch. But he (admittedly with a little help from Mikhail Gorbachev and from the rotting Soviet economy) prepared the ground for the two most important events of the second half of the 20th century.

Mr Reagan was the supreme illustration of Isaiah Berlin's division of men into two categories, of foxes and hedgehogs. The knowledge-devouring Mr Clinton was the perfect fox, who "knows many things". The hedgehog, however, "knows one big thing". Mr Reagan's one big thing, was that Communism was doomed and that freedom and democracy would prevail. In almost every speech, Mr Bush borrows that last part verbatim.

Cold Warrior

Mr Reagan's vision permeated every foreign policy speech, from his declaration in London in 1982 that the Soviet Union would finish on the ash heap of history, to his demand during a visit to Berlin: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall". Critics assailed him for peddling simplistic nonsense, and in 1983 the cold war nearly went hot, after the Soviet shooting down of flight KAL 007 and a Soviet nuclear alert that came close to triggering a missile launch.

Yet during his last three years in the White House, Mr Reagan held no less than five summits with Mr Gorbachev. "Doverai, no proverai", or "Trust but verify", became his doggerel Russian watchword for his dealings with Moscow. In the minds of both leaders, each man's cliché of the other - dinosaur Commie-basher and the irreducible Bolshevik - dissolved. Mr Reagan's own charm was one of the reasons. "There was something inexplicable about this man," Mr Gorbachev said yesterday, musing nostalgically about his former negotiating partner.

Unwittingly perhaps, the former Soviet leader touched upon a central paradox of Mr Reagan, the leader who seemed so wedded to the dogma he mouthed, yet who was prepared to compromise in pursuit of his goal. To an often unsuspected extent, the pragmatist co-existed with the visionary in the Reagan breast.

Arms Control

Indeed, in the course of the superpower arms control negotiations of that era, only once did Mr Reagan's vision block progress. That, of course, was his dream of a space-based "Star Wars" missile defence for the US, which Mr Bush is now eagerly developing. "Star Wars", or SDI, might have been an obsession, but it also displayed Mr Reagan's idealism, another facet of his character that dovetailed with America's basic outlook on the world. Every dream, however farfetched, was permissible, so long as the cause was noble.

In this case, the goal was to rid the world of nuclear weapons, period. At the Rejkyavik summit of October 1986, a deal to that effect was within reach, on paper at least, only to founder on Mr Reagan's implacable refusal to give up SDI.

The Economy

Mr Reagan reshaped economic policy, to the point of lending his name to a new approach to the glomy science. "Reaganomics" was the unflattering term for the belief that reduced taxes would bring higher growth, and that short-term budget deficits would disappear naturally, as higher growth stimulated by the cuts generated new revenue for government. It was widely scorned then and widely scorned now, but that has not stopped Mr Bush from adopting the very same strategy.

More than two decades later, supply-side "Reaganonomics" have acquired a measure of respectability: after all, its defenders claim, did not the Reagan boom last 17 years, with the exception of the small recession of 1990/1991? The recession of 2000/2001 has also proved to be short. Could it be because of the Bush tax cuts? Now as in the 1980s, massive deficits are presented as small passing inconveniences.


If anything, history's judgement of Mr Reagan is improving too. When he left office in 1989, a poll ranked him 22nd of the then 40 men who had served in the White House. Two years ago a similar survey of historians and presidential scholars ranked him 11th. If this Bush presidency ends in failure, perhaps Mr Reagan's reputation will be tarnished with it. Equally likely however it will increasingly be seen as a golden age.

There are three acknowledged "great" presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D Roosevelt. Mr Reagan will never join that tiny group, but by common consent he is included in a second tier of "near-greats" with Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman (yet another president dimly regarded by his opponents and by historians of his time.

By their nature Americans are optimistic. But none of their leaders, not even FDR, has exhibited the quality like Mr Reagan. It was Micawberish at times, a seemingly blind conviction that even the darkest events had a silver lining; but no other politician could summon that politically priceless "feel-good factor". Mr Bush attempts to project a similar optimism, but his is an America living in darker times, run by people who, after the events of 11 September 2001, have a dark and suspicious view of a world where danger lurks around every corner, and not even the homeland is safe. And whereas Mr Bush has a smirk, Mr Reagan had a genial sunny smile, and a way with words that could make reality stand on its head.

Perhaps it was all an illusion. But in this age, where the age-old political art of "spin" is held to be the ultimate verity, perhaps all politics is an illusion. In his "Role of a Lifetime", to borrow the title of Lou Cannon's definitive biography, Mr Reagan the actor understood that politics is theatre, whose most precious coinage is great lines and great performances.

In this respect, he was unsurpassed. Listen even now to his speech after the 1986 Challenger disaster, or his words during a visit to the site of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, and the most hardbitten of souls will melt. "What I'd really like to do is go down in history as the president who made Americans believe in themselves again," Mr Reagan said not long after entering the White House. It's the sort of line that ends up as a vacuous campaign slogan. For better or worse, Mr Reagan's feat was to make the line come true.

The life of Ronald Wilson Reagan

6 February 1911:

Ronald Wilson Reagan born in Tampico, Illinois.

1932: Graduates from Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois, with degree in economics and sociology.

1937: While in California for an Iowa radio station, takes a screen test and lands a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. He goes on to appear in more than 50 films.

1940: Marries Jane Wyman. Lands the role of the legendary Notre Dame running back George Gipp in Knute Rock: All American. Role earns him the nickname "The Gipper".

1942: Enters the Army during the Second World War. Poor eyesight restricts his duties and he spends most of his military career narrating training films. Discharged in 1945 with the rank of captain.

1949: Marriage to Wyman ends.

1952: Marries Nancy Davis.

1962: Switches from Democrat to Republican.

1966: Elected Governor of California where his major achievement is legislation that reforms the welfare system.

1968: First foray into presidential politics. Finishes third in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, behind Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockerfeller.

1970: Re-elected Governor.

1976: Second attempt to run for president falls short behind Gerald Ford's bid.

1980: Elected President. During his first term he delivers large tax cuts and increases defence spending.

1981: John Hinckley Jr shoots him in the chest in an assassination attempt.

1983: Orders the invasion of Grenada. Says the action is needed to protect Americans living there after a military coup.

1984: Wins second term, beating Democratic challenger Walter F Monsdale in a record electoral landslide.

1985: White House secretly agrees to sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of US hostages. The profits are illegally funnelled to Nicaraguan rebels. Becomes known as the Iran-Contra scandal.

1988: Summit talks with Mikhail Gorbachev formulate an agreement on the verification inspections of nuclear missiles.

1989: Leaves office with the highest approval rating of any president since the Second World War.

1994: Releases a letter announcing that he has Alzheimer's disease.


President George W Bush

This is a sad hour in the life of America. A great American life has come to an end. He leaves behind a nation he restored and a world he helped save.

Tony Blair

At home, his vision and leadership restored national self-confidence. Abroad, the negotiations of arms control agreements in his second term helped end the Cold War.

Margaret Thatcher

President Reagan was one of my closest political and dearest personal friends. To have achieved so much against so many odds and with such humour and humanity made Ronald Reagan a truly great American hero.

Mikhail Gorbachev

I feel great regret. Reagan was a statesman who displayed foresight and determination to meet our proposals halfway and change our relations for the better, stop the nuclear race, start scrapping nuclear weapons, and arrange normal relations between our countries.