Politics

Examining Reagan's Evolving Legacy

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Sunday is the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth. Today, Republicans and Democrats alike are quick to invoke his name when arguing their positions on everything from taxes to immigration. Guest host Linda Wertheimer speaks with James Fallows of The Atlantic about how the once-divisive president has become almost universally referenced.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President BARACK OBAMA: We pray that the violence in Egypt will end, and that the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized, and that a better day will dawn over Egypt.

WERTHEIMER: President Obama speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier in the week. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays.

Hello, Jim.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Hello, Linda. Nice to talk to you.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we'll get into the Prayer Breakfast in just a moment. But we heard earlier from Hillary Clinton today that the White House is using carefully worded language to send messages not just to Hosni Mubarak and the people of Egypt, but also to the entire region. What do you hear in those statements?

Mr. FALLOWS: It's a reminder to me of the basic predicament the U.S. has faced since the end of World War II when we've been a world power; where on the one hand, we have interests, which have often caused us to be belied with dictators and wars around the world. On the other hand, we have the ideals that our nation was founded to stand for and that we would like to promote around the world.

And so, this reminds me very much of the situation in the 1980s when there were similar transitions under way both in the Philippines and in South Korea, where the U.S. wish for many years had belied with dictatorial leaders or corrupt leaders, recognized that was a shift under way where democratic ideals, civil liberties, there's a growing demand for them in those countries, and the U.S. was able to make the shift, to be able to say, we're on the side now of these ideals. We recognize that the interest we have, which belied us with some of these rulers, are now taking second place.

And so, what one would hope from this transition in Egypt is something like the transition the U.S. helped midwife in both the Philippines and South Korea in the 1980s.

WERTHEIMER: And in the case of the Philippines, that was Marcos and that was President Reagan who was working with that one. Let's just talk for a minute about Ronald Reagan. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of his birth. This just past election, he was part of almost every campaign, mostly invoked by Republicans, but also occasionally by Democrats and sometimes by President Obama.

Mr. FALLOWS: You could take this as a good sign of the possible harmony and unity in American history that figures who in their own era of governance were tremendously divisive. Let's say FDR who was, you know, hated by Republicans or Ronald Reagan who was a very polarizing figure when he was in office. As time goes on, representatives of all political parties and all political heritages find things in this background, of this tradition they want to align themselves with.

And so in the case of President Reagan and President Obama, it's the spirit of optimism that Reagan, in retrospect, is thought to have brought to the 1980s is the efforts that President Reagan made with Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, tried to work towards lower nuclear arms totals around the world. And even some Democrats are now pointing out that to fight the deficits in the mid to late '80s, President Reagan approved a number of tax increases.

So this is the big tent theory of American presidents that we can all find things in their heritage.

WERTHEIMER: But mostly, we find things in the heritage of successful presidents, is that right?

Mr. FALLOWS: Indeed, and poor Herbert Hoover, it's going to be a long time until he is invoked by the Democrats in particular, and my one time employer Jimmy Carter. I think he is still watching the inbox to see when the Republicans start claiming him.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we heard a few moments ago President Obama speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast this past week. It seemed to be a somewhat different Barack Obama up there than we've seen in the past two years. He even pointed out Republican Senator Tom Coburn as his brother in Christ.

Mr. FALLOWS: We didn't hear a lot of brother in Christ talk during the midterms, it's true. But in a way, I think, this is the same Barack Obama who first appeared in the national attention in 2004 with his Democratic Convention speech and also in his famous March of 2008 speech about race in Philadelphia in the sense that he tried to combine the personal and the political and the unifying and the occasionally divisive in this sense.

He talked first about how he himself had been raised without religion and how as a young adult he came to find Jesus Christ. And then he talked about ways in which this bound people together. And then in a neat pivot at the end, he said he tried to use this to justify a number of his own administration's initiatives. So I thought it was an effort to reclaim the persona that first made him popular.

WERTHEIMER: James Fallows is National Correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thank you.

Mr. FALLOWS: Thank you, Linda.

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