Ronald Reagan's 100th Birthday Finds Him A Beloved Enigma : It's All Politics Who Reagan really was stays a mystery to many but his impact on the nation and world is more clear. He brought stubborn optimism to the White House when it was needed. He was clear-eyed about the nature of the Soviet regime and he was skeptical about the size and role of government.
NPR logo Ronald Reagan's 100th Birthday Finds Him A Beloved Enigma

Ronald Reagan's 100th Birthday Finds Him A Beloved Enigma

President Reagan blowing out candles on cake while celebrating his birthday in the Oval Office. Feb. 5, 1982. Reagan Presidential Library hide caption

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Reagan Presidential Library

As the nation observes Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday this Super Bowl Sunday, one of the more recurring themes in retrospectives of the man is of how much of a riddle the 40th president was.

Even a son, Ronald Reagan Jr., has recently written of how ultimately inscrutable his father was.

Presidents, however, the most famous people in America, are generally hard to know. It's one of the paradoxes of their office.

Because of their heightened celebrity and owing their success in good part to being comfortably familiar to voters, Americans often have a false sense of "knowing" the Oval Office occupant.

But because they're also so powerful, presidents are famously insulated from the very citizens they represent.

And even if the famous White House bubble didn't exist, because so many people seek favors from them, presidents are forced to keep their distance.

Even so, some presidents are probably even harder to know than others.

For instance, you rarely hear the two Bush presidents spoken of with the same puzzlement of which Reagan is spoken.

Perhaps with a Reagan, the more useful exercise is not to ask who he was but what he meant.

On this score, we can safely say Reagan offered his stubborn optimism at a time when Americans were desperate for such sunniness after the national self-doubt caused by Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis.

His astonishing recovery and return to form after the March 1981 attempt on his life only seemed to add to him becoming a metaphor for national resilience.

Coupled with that was his unabashed belief in American exceptionalism.

Circumstances had combined to make the U.S. an extraordinary republic, the most durable and remarkable in world history and Reagan didn't believe in hiding that light under a bushel.

America was a "shining city on a hill," he said, borrowing a line from 17th Century Puritan John Winthrop.

He also saw the true nature of the Soviet Union clearly, calling it an "evil empire," and with an arms build-up helping to give the final nudge to a tottering system built on a rotten foundation.

While it may be overstating things to give Reagan all the credit, as some do, for ending the Cold War, he certainly didn't get in the way of the Soviet regime's tumble or give it any quarter.

But he also was willing to negotiate nuclear arms agreements with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, so long as it was from a position of strength. If Reagan didn't go from being a hawk to a dove, he became a hawk with dove-like tendencies.

A conservative Republican, Reagan was skeptical about the federal government's role, especially when it was run by those who saw the need for energetic government action in domestic affairs.

In that, he tapped into a latent suspicion of strong, centralized government that goes back to the nation's beginnings.

But while he often inveighed against big government and heavy taxes, the government actually grew during his two year terms and he agreed to higher taxes when fiscal prudence required it.

As Joshua Green wrote in Washington Monthly in 2003 the year before Reagan died:

A sober review of Reagan's presidency doesn't yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today. Federal government expanded on his watch. The conservative desire to outlaw abortion was never seriously pursued. Reagan broke with the hardliners in his administration and compromised with the Soviets on arms control. His assault on entitlements never materialized; instead he saved Social Security in 1983. And he repeatedly ignored the fundamental conservative dogma that taxes should never be raised.

Reagan's skepticism about the government as a force for good in the lives of the vulnerable, made America, during his years in the White House, seem more hostile for millions who were poor, in minority groups, or suffering from the then-new disease of AIDS.

It was a perceived hostility that only increased with each of his tellings of his famous, if apocryphal, story the Cadillac driving welfare queen in Chicago.

That he seemed so fixated on the poor who gamed the system and not the rich who did the same, only meant he shared the same disposition as millions of other Americans.

What it all means is that Reagan, far from being the "amiable dunce" of a cartoon character his critics saw, or the perfect conservative saint as some revisionists on the right depict him, was a complicated mixture of human qualities and, yes, something of an enigma.

But Americans never doubted that he loved America and millions of Americans returned that love in kind.

And in the intervening years since his presidency, even many Americans who couldn't bring themselves to vote for him, have come to respect and appreciate him. Of that, there is no mystery.