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Storybook president
Fables aside, Ronald Reagan’s true legacy is the parade of conservative ideologues who followed him to power

IN DEATH, Ronald Reagan, who lived and prospered as a storyteller, has become the subject of countless stories being told at the media’s week-long, electronic Irish wake.

And as so often happens at Irish wakes, a lot of the stories are close but not quite true.

Reagan is being eulogized as an affable Everyman, a genial son of the Midwest by way of Hollywood who went to Washington, like Mr. Smith, and, in between making some terrific speeches and telling some charming stories, managed to cut taxes and win the Cold War.

Reagan’s true legacy is, of course, much more and much less than that: it is more complex and more partisan, less romantic and less clear-cut than the stories being told at his wake. That’s as it should be for the man who was arguably the most influential president of the post-war era — but who was clearly not, as his acolytes so desperately want us to believe, the most successful.

Accounting for all Reagan’s successes and failures is no simple task. But accounting for his enduring influence on American politics is easy: 15 years after the man left office, candidates of both parties are earnestly courting millions of "Reagan Democrats." No one has yet to spot a single "Clinton Republican."

AS GARRY WILLS pointed out in his minor classic Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, Ronald Wilson Reagan spent his entire career telling stories. He went to work right after college as a radio announcer; later on, working at radio station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, he won renown for his skill at "re-creating" Chicago Cubs baseball games. On game days, Reagan would call the play-by-play of a contest he never saw, taking brief telegraphed descriptions of each pitch and play — Hartnett grounds out to third — and weaving them into a coherent narrative complete with color commentary, background on the players, and asides about the weather and the crowd.

Baseball re-creations were a popular form of entertainment in those pre-television days, and Reagan was an accomplished practitioner of the art. It was a skill — taking small nuggets of information and weaving them into larger, dramatically compelling but not always fully accurate stories — that would stand him in good stead during his presidency.

From Iowa, it was on to Hollywood, where he was a better actor than he’s usually given credit for, standing on the brink of major stardom when World War II intervened. During the war, he served in an Army film unit, churning out instructional and propaganda films; during the 1950s, after his first marriage crumbled and his movie career began to flag, he moved into television, commercials, and motivational speaking.

At every turn, the challenge was to tell a story to a select audience: Hollywood stories for the big and small screens, stories about the dangers of VD for his fellow soldiers, stories about General Electric appliances for overworked housewives, and about the power of positive thinking for ambitious executives.

It was all "directed communication," to use the current phrase, and after five decades of it, Reagan emerged, in the 1980s, as the Great Communicator. But not without a major course correction along the way: during the Communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and early ’50s Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, was appalled by what he saw as the Communist influence in Hollywood. He became a secret FBI informant and a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

During those years, Reagan the New Deal Democrat rethought his political philosophy and resurfaced, in the early ’60s, as Reagan the Goldwater Republican. This was not exactly a typical conversion — Reagan may well be the only union president ever to become both a government stoolie and a Republican during his term — but it was plainly heartfelt. Reagan’s landmark speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater late in the 1964 presidential campaign launched him on his own political career; in 1966, he won the governorship of California, and, two years after that, he mounted his first unsuccessful campaign for the White House.

Reagan was not the first media celebrity to win high political office. Hollywood song-and-dance man George Murphy won election to the US Senate from California in 1964, and Western-swing radio star and Hillbilly Flour salesman Lee "Pappy" O’Daniel was a Texas governor and US senator in the ’30s and ’40s. But Reagan was by far the most successful. And his success derived from the fact that, unlike most celebrity politicians, he had a coherent political philosophy and a rationale for his candidacy that transcended the fact of his own celebrity.

While Reagan was hardly an intellectual, he was, as his biographer Lou Cannon has long argued, a thinker. The very process of re-examining his old political beliefs and casting about for new ones in midlife distinguishes him from most politicians of his era. Reagan emerged from this process with a set of unshakable core beliefs about individual liberty and the role of government that were not popular at the time, but which he was determined to popularize.

The core of the Reagan philosophy was a Goldwater-like near-libertarianism — a belief that government is almost always an intrusive force rather than a force for good. As he famously insisted during his first inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Onto that quasi-libertarian stock, Reagan grafted a muscular and assertive patriotism; a set of conventional social mores that he extolled but did not always practice; a sentimental affection for an idealized American past; and an unapologetic optimism about the boundless American future. The resulting combination may have seemed simplistic to some, but it was an authentic American political voice. It also set Reagan at odds with the moderate Republican establishment, the GOP of Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George Bush père.

Nixon defeated Reagan easily in his 1968 run for the White House, and Ford did so with considerably more difficulty in 1976. But come 1980, Reagan ate George H.W. Bush’s lunch in the primaries and — after flirting with, but eventually rejecting, a deal that would have returned Ford to the vice-presidency as a sort of regent for foreign policy — chose Bush as his running mate. The price for Bush: renouncing his support for abortion rights and mainstream economic policy, and therefore his standing as a reliable GOP moderate.

Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 general election was accompanied by the Republicans’ unexpected takeover of the Senate, raising expectations on both sides of the aisle. House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill, speaking for congressional Democrats, welcomed Reagan but warned him that in Washington the politicians "play hardball." Reagan, as it turned out, could handle big-league pitching.

The president’s relationship with O’Neill become a key element of his political persona. He cultivated a "six-o’clock friendship" with the Speaker, insisting that their partisan differences should not stand in the way of comradeship after working hours. O’Neill warily went along, and Reagan made much of the men’s friendship, especially their shared Irish heritage. But this was nothing if not good politics: it implied that Reagan had little use for base partisanship, when in fact nothing could have been further from the truth.

Reagan was a truly intense Republican partisan, but one who — like Bill Weld a few years later — was able to use affability, good humor, and self-deprecation to mask his partisanship. Even more than Weld, Reagan could affect an Everyman image; his 1983 visit to the Eire Pub, in Adams Village, remains a piece of Dorchester legend.

And Reagan’s jokes at his own expense were genuinely endearing — "They say hard work never killed anyone, but why take a chance?" — even as they obscured the extent to which his administration was engaged in partisan warfare of the fiercest sort. He got the better of those battles in the first two years, pushing through tax cuts and a budget plan that took direct aim at Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.

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Issue Date: June 11 - 17, 2004
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