Assessing Ronald Reagan At 100

pro and anti Reagan buttons

As we approach the Ronald Reagan centennial, the nation remains split on his legacy. hide caption

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Ronald Reagan, the nation's 40th president, would have turned 100 this coming Sunday.

Twenty-two years after he left office, and nearly seven years after his death, the nation is still split on his legacy.

There is little question that he is one of the most celebrated presidents in our history. But the record is decidedly mixed. He is widely regarded as the icon of the conservative movement, who came to office promising change and who remains today a beloved figure, not only with the right but with many Americans. But his record after two terms as president often didn't match the rhetoric, not everyone benefited from his "Morning in America" cheerfulness, and his tenure ended in scandal.

So who, and what, was Ronald Reagan?

One thing is clear. Bill Clinton may have been the man from Hope, and Barack Obama certainly campaigned on hope. But Ronald Reagan was the embodiment of hope. And of optimism. And he came to the White House at the perfect time, after Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter left so much to be desired in the presidency, and when the nation was crying out for hope.

Yes, Reagan was a Hollywood actor, and many saw him as little more than that. But one thing few disagreed with was that he was a great communicator. And when he gave that famous speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater in October 1964 — "A Time for Choosing" — conservatives knew that they had a candidate in the making.

Reagan entered the 1966 race for governor of California against two-term incumbent Pat Brown. In one of the earliest examples of underestimating Reagan's skill as a candidate, the Democrats were thrilled to run against him. An extremist, they said. A second-rate actor with no political experience, they sniffed.

As governor, Brown had his own problems. He was at the helm when Watts burned after the 1965 riots and when college campuses began to erupt. And the economy was hurting.

Reagan won by a million votes.

He ran as a conservative and governed, for the most part, as a conservative. He cracked down on student unrest at the state university campuses. He drastically cut the state budget, the brunt of which fell on the poor. But he also raised taxes, to a record level, and he signed a bill that liberalized abortion rights. These are just some examples of how his ideology could be at odds with his practicality. And it played well at home, for the most part. In 1970, he easily won re-election, by a half-million votes, over state Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh.

With nowhere for Reagan to go in 1972, when the Nixon-Agnew team was running for a second term, his thoughts drifted to '76. Some wanted Reagan to challenge Sen. Alan Cranston (D) in 1974, but that was not about to happen. Instead of running for a third gov. term that year, Reagan left office and began to plot out his post-Nixon future.

The problem was, Nixon's presidency ended prematurely. (As did Agnew's, who was caught in a pathetic, two-bit kickback scandal stemming back from his Maryland days, and which continued as vice president; he was forced to resign in '73.) With no chance of picking a potential presidential candidate as a replacement VP — the Democratic Congress would never have sanctioned it — Nixon instead chose Gerald Ford, the House Minority Leader. And when Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal got untenable, in '74, he too quit. And that left Ford as president.

Not what Reagan had planned.

Throughout his political career, Reagan preached what he called the 11th Commandment — "Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Another Republican." But Ford as president offered a roadblock that he didn't anticipate, and Reagan refused to sit back. He challenged the president of his own party in the primaries, a risky move to say the least. Reagan lost in the early states and was being written off. But he came back with big wins in North Carolina and Texas, and suddenly the GOP had a real dogfight for the nomination. Ford eventually triumphed, at the convention in Kansas City. But when he lost in November, to Jimmy Carter, it left the path to the 1980 nomination wide open for Reagan.

There were problems, of course. By 1980, Reagan would be 69 years old — too old, many said, to run for president. George Bush, the former Texas congressman, RNC chair and U.N. ambassador, made a point of jogging everywhere he campaigned, a not-so-subtle way of pointing out the differences between his "vitality" and Reagan's age.

But even if the party establishment had difficulties in warming up to Reagan, rank-and-file Republicans loved him. He spoke their language. He may have lost the Iowa caucuses to Bush that year, but from New Hampshire on he was a steamroller that could not be stopped.

And yet, while he campaigned as a no-nonsense conservative, he showed an ability to bend. In picking Bush as his running mate at the convention that summer in Detroit, he told his party — and the country — that winning, not ideology, was the ultimate goal.

As with Pat Brown, President Carter underestimated Reagan's appeal. Of course, as also with Brown, Carter had his own problems. Inflation was out of control. America's image around the world was suffering. Ted Kennedy had damaged Carter's candidacy by challenging him for the nomination. And Carter's inability to resolve the hostage situation in Iran played a major role.

Nonetheless, Carter and the Democrats were confident of victory. Reagan was too old, they whispered. Too extreme.

That confidence ended after their one debate, in late October, when Reagan basically won the election. "There you go again," he told Carter at one point, showing Americans he was more of a genial guy than a threatening ideologue. And his closing argument — "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" — won the day. Reagan was elected in a landslide, and he carried in a GOP Senate as well.

But his honeymoon was brief. His tax-cutting plans, pretty radical at the time, were having a hard time getting through Congress, especially the Democratic-controlled House. In March 1981, in a speech promoting his economic policies before a labor group in Washington, he was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin. The horror of that day led to a huge amount of sympathy for the president, and he would have his way with Congress over taxes and the budget.

But the economy didn't improve. In fact, it was spinning in the opposite direction. Unemployment was reaching 11 percent. The poverty rate was escalating, as was the gap between rich and poor. Military spending was vastly increased, at the expense of domestic programs. The budget deficit was out of control. Republicans lost 26 House seats in the 1982 midterm elections, and there was no shortage of Democrats preparing to run against him in 1984.

While many remember — and conservatives often cite — Reagan's huge tax cuts of 1981, fewer recall or discuss his later tax increases. He raised taxes, as he did in California. Regardless, the economy started to come back in late 1983, just in time for his re-election ... which he won in a landslide, carrying 49 states against Democratic candidate Walter Mondale.

The conservative revolution he started when he came to Washington in 1981, which lost some steam during his first term, mostly ran out of gas in his second. Government, which he vowed to shrink as a candidate, expanded. His "Star Wars" missile defense system was ridiculed by experts at home.

But if his domestic critics were unimpressed, the same wasn't true about Moscow. Reagan's defense buildup, and his bravado, has been credited by some as the beginning of the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe — and of the Soviet Union itself. This is a major reason why he was, and continues to be, so deified by the right.

Two moments of his second term stay with me. We talk about Clinton and Obama being effective at giving the nation comfort after horrific events; witness their respective speeches following the Oklahoma City bombing and the Tucson shootings. But those men took their cues from Reagan, the true Griever-in-Chief, who gave an incredibly moving speech in January 1986 following the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. Nobody was better at this than Ronald Reagan.

The other is the Iran-Contra scandal. Reagan promised he would never deal in arms to get hostages returned, but that's exactly what his administration did with Iran. And some of the money gained by selling the arms went to fund the Contras, who were fighting the leftist government in Nicaragua. Funding the Contras was illegal. Congress was not informed of this, and many were saying this was grounds for impeachment.

Hearings were held, careers were ruined. But somehow, Reagan came away relatively untainted.

For all the talk about repealing the 22nd Amendment and allowing him to run for a third term in 1988 — never a serious topic but one wistfully discussed by conservatives — the truth is, Reagan was spent after his eight years in office. It was time for him to go. But he got his vice president elected to succeed him, and he left office, in January 1989, with an approval rating north of 60 percent.

Not bad.

If anything, his numbers have improved since then. He remains the president his party admires most. Scores of candidates have since run as self-described "Reagan Republicans."

Reagan had his critics back then, some of whom made it clear that his eight years were a disaster, both at home and on the international stage. On the other hand, for many, he is looked back with appreciation, if not reverence, for what he meant to America and what he meant to the presidency — especially coming after Nixon, Ford and Carter. Some of it, of course, is myth, and some of it may be just a response to the ugliness of the present. But few presidents made as lasting an impact on the American psyche as Ronald Wilson Reagan.

One final thought: Could Reagan, who believed in compromise — he of the "if you agree with me 80 percent of the time, you're an 80 percent friend and not a 20 percent enemy" philosophy — could he have survived in today's all-or-nothing Tea Party atmosphere, where demonizing opponents is the norm? A good question. But I don't have an answer.

The Reagan career in campaign buttons:

Reagan buttons, 1966-70

(1) In 1966, Reagan was elected governor by a million votes over Pat Brown; (2) he retained strong approval ratings but many opposed his budget cutbacks during his first term; (3) some wanted Reagan to run for president in 1968; (4) re-elected governor in 1970. hide caption

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Reagan buttons, 1972-76

(1) A conservative fantasy: Nixon dumps Agnew as VP in 1972 and selects Reagan instead; (2) some on the right gave up on Nixon altogether and wanted Reagan to run as a "real" conservative; (3) Reagan ran for president in 1976 but lost the nomination to Ford. hide caption

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Reagan buttons, 1980-83

(1) Some said Reagan was too old to run in 1980; (2) but run he did, and he won a landslide over President Carter; (3) Reagan had no shortage of critics during his term, with some calling him reckless when it came to foreign policy; (4) and others angry about the failure of his economic policies. hide caption

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Reagan buttons: 1984-end

(1) The economy improving, Reagan won 49 states in his re-election bid; (2 & 3) since he left office, some talked wistfully about changing the Constitution to let him run again. hide caption

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Talk of the Nation: This week's Political Junkie segment, which focused on Reagan's legacy, featured Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan's years as governor and president and is author of numerous books on the 40th president, notably "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime;" and Craig Shirley, the conservative consultant and author of "Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All." Click here to listen to that segment.

And speaking of TOTN, here was this week's trivia question:

Sunday's Super Bowl features the Green Bay Packers, which won the first two Super Bowls, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, which have won more Super Bowls — 6 — than any other team. The Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers are close behind, with 5 wins each. So here's the question: In order, name the top three presidential candidates who received the most popular votes for president.

OK, I confess, there was some ambiguity with my question. Did I mean in one year, or total? I meant total ... as in, since FDR ran four times, you add up all his votes for all the times he ran for president in the general election. (Answers below.)

Sign up. Wanna be on my weekly mailing list? Sign up at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

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Later today: The latest podcast. And ScuttleButton!

Trivia answers: (1) Richard Nixon: 113,063,548 votes (he ran in 1960, 1968 and 1972); (2) George W. Bush: 112,495,766 (ran in 2000 and 2004); (3) Franklin D. Roosevelt: 103,525,434 (ran in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944).

For the record, Reagan was 4th, Bill Clinton 5th, George H.W. Bush 6th, and Dwight Eisenhower 7th.

This Day In Political History: President Reagan delivers his State of the Union address, which was originally scheduled for Jan. 28 but postponed because of the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. The speech, Reagan's fifth SOTU, is credited for a good delivery and an affirmation of values but criticized by members of both parties for lacking specifics or offering new proposals (Feb. 4, 1986).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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