Panelists Review Ronald Reagan's Time In Politics

Sunday marks 100 years since the birth of Ronald Reagan. Several days of celebration are planned at his presidential library and museum in Simi Valley, Calif. Those events kicked off Wednesday with a panel of biographers and journalists who had covered him since the beginning of his political career.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We'll be hearing a lot about Ronald Reagan in the coming days. This Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of America's 40th president. And at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, a panel of folks who knew the late president well spoke of him. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports the group included some journalists who were there when Reagan traded acting for politics.

INA JAFFE: One of those journalists is former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. He was a local TV news reporter in Los Angeles when Ronald Reagan was getting ready to run for governor of California. The man he saw then was...

Mr. TOM BROKAW (Former NBC News Anchor): A pure product of Main Street, Heartland America. He even looked the part. People were comfortable with him from the very beginning.

JAFFE: Reagan's charm and folksy humor lead people to underestimate him, said Lou Cannon, who as a reporter also covered the beginning of Reagan's political career. Cannon's also written five books about him. But no one, said Cannon, was more responsible for people underestimating Reagan than Reagan himself.

Mr. LOU CANNON (Reporter, Author): People thought that if you were an actor, you know, it was a synonym for being an airhead, which, of course, is not true. But when Ronald Reagan was asked what kind of a governor would you be, he said, I don't know, I've never played a governor.

JAFFE: Reagan is idolized by conservatives, but they overlook his pragmatic side, said Cannon. When he became governor, California was short of money. So...

Mr. CANNON: Ronald Reagan, in 1967, signed into law the largest tax increase in the history of any state up till then - it was a billion dollars.

JAFFE: Or more than six billion in today's money. Reagan knew what he wanted and knew how to get it, said Pete Wilson, who was in the California legislature when Reagan was governor and in the U.S. Senate when Reagan was president.

Former Senator PETE WILSON (Republican, California): He was determined that he was going to bankrupt the Soviet Union, that he was going to put them in a position where they could not compete with him militarily, and he carried it out. Brilliant.

JAFFE: One reason we know so much about Ronald Reagan is that he documented his own time in office in his diaries, said historian Douglas Brinkley, who's edited them.

Mr. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (Historian): He kept these big leather-bound books and wrote in them every day - every single day except when he was shot in Washington for about three days. So other presidents have kept a diary but not consistently over an eight-year period.

JAFFE: Reagan's failures were also noted by the panelists - the Iran-Contra scandal, for example, and the 1983 killing of 241 Marines, sailors and soldiers by a suicide bomber at the Beirut Airport.

Mr. CANNON: I'm very critical of Reagan on Lebanon. I think that's the low point of his presidency.

JAFFE: Said Lou Cannon - and it was the failure that bothered Reagan the most too.

Mr. CANNON: When I interviewed him years later, he said this was the saddest day of my presidency, the saddest day of my life.

JAFFE: If there was any disagreement among the panelists, it was over where Ronald Reagan ranked in the pantheon of American presidents. Journalist and Reagan biographer Richard Reeves saw Reagan's contributions as largely political.

Mr. RICHARD REEVES (Journalist, Biographer): The Tea Party, the Wall Streeters, the religious conservatives, the gun people, the libertarians - where else can they turn? The party has no other center but Ronald Reagan.

JAFFE: But Reagan's political legacy isn't purely partisan, said Reeves.

Mr. REEVES: Ronald Reagan changed American politics in our lifetime, perhaps forever, making big government the enemy.

JAFFE: The panelists agreed that the Ronald Reagan legacy that will be discussed, fought over and celebrated in the coming days is just the one we understand right now. It's sure to be transformed by future events we can't even imagine.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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