In Praise Of Reagan, Communicator Extraordinaire Historian Douglas Brinkley considers Ronald Reagan one of the top five American presidents of the 20th century. Brinkley is the editor of The Reagan Diaries.
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In Praise Of Reagan, Communicator Extraordinaire

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In Praise Of Reagan, Communicator Extraordinaire

In Praise Of Reagan, Communicator Extraordinaire

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. In the first half of our show, journalist Will Bunch, author of "Tear Down This Myth," argued that the Reagan legacy as claimed by Republicans is a consciously created myth. We asked historian Douglas Brinkley what he has to say about the Reagan legacy. Brinkley edited the book of Reagan's White House diaries. He's a professor of history at Rice University.

Doug Brinkley, welcome back to Fresh Air. Now, you've called President Reagan one of the top five American presidents of the 20th century. Why do you think he merits that?

Prof. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (History, Rice University; Editor, "The Reagan Diaries"): Well, look, Ronald Reagan had left a very large shadow. We used to say that Franklin Roosevelt's shadow went all the way from 1932 to 1980, meaning whether it was Eisenhower or Kennedy or Johnson or Nixon, they were still - politically, they were inclined to have to deal with the legacy of FDR. From 1980 until the election of Barack Obama, we were living in the age of Reagan. He in many ways was the pendulum swing back against FDR and the New Deal in the great society of Lyndon Johnson, and it lasted longer than people thought. Many people thought the age of Reagan might just be eight years or 12 years but it went for a very long time, meaning the Clinton years, which should have been a progressive movement. Instead, keyed(ph) the triangulation and still operated within the very notions of Reaganism, meaning welfare, reform or tax cuts, promoting the big military buildup, et cetera.

And also, I think Reagan stood up for that - at the last minute for the World War II generation, and by the 1980s, before Stephen Ambrose and Spielberg and Brokaw's greatest generation, Regan was talking about the morning again in America, which meant back to World War II, pre-Vietnam, when we were all in this together. There is a Disney-like view that Reagan had that didn't grapple with the fact that women weren't getting equal pay, that Jim Crow existed in the South. Nevertheless, he made the veterans of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and Sicily and Normandy feel that they mattered. And so that whole generation felt that Regan was their president.

GROSS: Now, Will Bunch in his book makes the point that a lot of the Reagan mystique is myth that was manufactured intentionally by a new aggressive breed of conservative that needed a hero to help unite and refuel the right. What's your opinion of that?

Prof. BRINKLEY: I agree with that. But that's only one part of what's going on. I don't think it's so much as a myth. I think presidents have legacies, and they get advocates. There's people that believe Theodore Roosevelt was great or FDR was great or Kennedy or Reagan. And it's personal - it's reasonable to think that people want to admire Ronald Reagan. I think the distortion comes when people leave the history books and try to create saints out of people.

Ronald Reagan was not a saint. He was a good president for his times. He was good because there was a kind of malaise in the country due to double-digit inflation, due to the hostages in Iran, due to the excesses of the great society or at least the misappropriations of funds going on for government programs. Taxes were being raised left and right, and so that we were naturally going to find a force in this country to kind of bring us back in a different direction. Reagan was that.

Even Barack Obama during the campaign trail had nice things to say about Ronald Reagan and Bush 41's foreign policy because if you get the partisanism out of it - the left wants to bash Reagan all the time. The right wants to celebrate him. Let's just be honest and look at what he accomplished in eight years, and you'll find that he was affective, and he was affective because he communicated to the American people that his heart was generally in the right place, that his personality captured people.

And we're going to have books that try to tear Reagan down or books that try to build him up, but the facts are that our national airport will be the Reagan airport forever, and that his presidential library in Simi Valley, California is by far the most visited presidential library in America. And people like Reagan, and I think his image will continue to grow, and it's not just because the hard right is promoting him. I think that people realize in the '80s he did a pretty good job grappling with the big issues of the day.

GROSS: Well, one of Will Bunches points - and let's see if you agree with this - is that some of the pragmatism of Ronald Reagan has been erased by the parts of the right that have made him into a hero because they're hardliners, and they want to portray him that way too. So when he does something pragmatic like raise taxes after he's lowered them, that's kind of erased from the official Regan legacy that the right puts forth. What are your thoughts?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, I think that's also accurate. You know, I'll give you a different example. I mean, look what Reagan had to face when we had our marines killed in 1983 in Lebanon, peacekeepers blown up. He - you know, there was a drumbeat on the right to put in troops, to go to war in the Middle East, and Reagan said, basically, you can always have a war in the Middle East. And he did what was the hardest thing for him to do, and that's not to send troops to pull out of Lebanon, not escalate the situation, there is a pragmatic president at work operating against the hard right in his day.

But look, the right should have Reagan as a hero. He made conservative - along with Barry Goldwater, Reagan made conservatism part of the bloodstream of America. Up until Reagan, at least until Reagan was governor of California, you were seen as somehow a bit of a kooky fringe if you were on the right. Reagan brought the right into the mainstream of America, and that's why they championed him. But they do a disservice by not looking at the historical Ronald Reagan and recognizing that he usually operated from a very centrist position, maybe center right on some issues, but he also tacked center left in that his great gift was his personality. And his personality was one that really wanted to prevent Armageddon.

When I edited Ronald Reagan's diaries, it was quite startling to see a president of the United States in his own handwriting writing the word Armageddon time and again. And he kept telling himself that that was his duty as president is to avoid war. So for all the hawkish rhetoric of the 1980s, we had a Grenada invasion, and we did a little bit of a few strikes with Libya, but by and large, Reagan was able to keep America at peace during his presidency and reduce nuclear weapons in the world more than any other Cold War president. That's his great legacy.

GROSS: You mentioned that you often saw the word Armageddon in Reagan's diaries when you were editing them? Let me give you an example. After Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor, thinking that this reactor was basically preparation for an atomic weapon, Reagan writes in his diaries: Got word of Israeli bombing of Iraq nuclear reactor. I swear I believe Armageddon is near. When I read that, I was wondering, I wonder what he meant by that. What do you think?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Reagan, you know, I think he had a relationship with God that you have to try to understand. When he was shot, for example, in his diary he said, from now on I am serving God. And part of serving God was to be a peacekeeper. Underneath it all was a man desperate to rid the world of nuclear weapons. And it be, even, you know, working closely again with George Shultz, they succeeded to a large degree to make the world a safer place, which again is his enduring accomplishment. That was triggered by kind of California religion about -that he read. He had read a lot of what some people would call subpar religious literature. But beyond critiquing that affect of what he read, the net result was it helped him as president keep his mind on being a peacemaker, not a warmonger.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned that you were interested in the role of faith in President Reagan's life, and I think one of the things President Reagan did was form a political coalition with the religious right. For example, the moral majority was, I think it's fair to say, instrumental in his election or at least in the size of his victory. And I wonder how you see that figuring into the Reagan legacy and the Reagan myth?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, it's very important, and I think he's really the person that brought evangelicals into the Republican fold, and part of it was a backlash on Roe verse(ph) Wade, although Reagan himself barely mentioned that issue during his presidency. Incidentally, if there's an insensitivity to Reagan that historians look at of something that he did wrong, he seemed not to respond to AIDS quickly enough as president. He seemed a bit indifferent to apartheid in South Africa.

One section of the diaries, Bishop Tutu comes to see him. Regan likes Tutu, but he says, you know, he needs to slow down pushing for freedom in South Africa. Yet Reagan never asked anybody in Central Europe to slow down. So, there are these disparities in Ronald Reagan, but I think that the right became a very - the moral majority types in this country, evangelicals, became a group Reagan was able to bring into the coalition and still is really the heart and soul today, I think, of the modern Republican Party.

GROSS: My guest is historian Douglas Brinkley. We'll talk more about the Reagan legacy after a break.

(Soundbite of music)

This is Fresh Air. We're talking about the Reagan legacy. In the first half of our show, we heard from journalist Will Bunch, author of "Tear Down This Myth," which argues that conservatives created a mythologized version of Reagan's legacy to help energize the right. My guest, historian Douglas Brinkley, edited Reagan's White House diaries.

One of the points Will Bunch makes in "Tear Down This Myth" about how the Reagan myth was built is that one thing that's always left out of the Reagan myth is Iran-Contra, the arms-for-hostages scandal. And you edited his journals, and there's a few entries about that. I thought I'd read a little bit of that just to get a sense of what he'd written in his own journals.

He writes: (Reading) Usual meetings. Discussion of how to handle press who are off on a wild story built on unfounded story originating in Beirut that we bought hostage David Jacobsen's freedom with weapons to Iran. We've tried, no comment. I've proposed and our message will be we can't and won't answer any questions on the subject because to do so will endanger the lives of those we are trying to help.

November 24th. After meeting Attorney General Ed Meese and Don Regan, they told me of a smoking gun. On one of the arms shipments, the Iranians paid Israel a higher purchase price than we were getting. The Israelis put the difference in a secret bank account. Then our Colonel Oliver North gave the money to the Contras. This was a violation of the law against giving the Contras money without an authorization by Congress. North didn't tell me about this. Worst of all, John Poindexter found out about it and didn't tell me. This may call for resignations.

So, he doesn't say in his journals that he knew anything about it, and he faults people in his administration for knowing and not telling him. What do you come away with about Ronald Reagan's contributions to the Iran-Contra scandal and also, why that's not mentioned - like, the Iran-Contra scandal isn't usually included in, you know, the myth of the Reagan presidency.

Prof. BRINKLEY: First off, Regan's to blame for Iran-Contra as any commander-in-chief is because it was his passive management style that allowed these guys to do what they did. But Reagan also always operated above the fray, meaning he didn't purposefully know what people were doing. There's one moment in the diaries where Reagan tells people about getting the hostages out, which all Americans wanted. Nobody wanted to see our people held hostage. Reagan said, I don't care if you end up going to Levenworth Prison. I want those guys out. Now, that was the word of the boss. He did not micromanage how they did that, and of course, he never said break the law to do it, but it was a general comment. So people like Oliver North and Poindexter thought they were kind of following the boss's verdict, no matter what, get these guys out.

Now, to Reagan's credit, he refused to pardon any of these people. Many people thought when he left office he'd pardon. He refused to. He said it wouldn't be right to the American people. And also, quite famously, on March 4th of 1987, he went on television and said, I made a mistake. He just flat out used the word, I made a mistake with Iran-Contra, and then shortly after - that was March of '87 - by June he's giving the famous Berlin Brandenburg Gate tear-down-this-wall speech and was able to turn around his popularity. Iran-Contra represents the low-water mark of the Reagan administration because it shows the down side of his passive management style.

GROSS: I think when people talk about how everybody loved Reagan that there's a group of people who feel very left out of that, and that's liberals who felt that Reagan was very conservative, that Reagan did away with a lot of federal regulations of government, that he put people in charge of the environment who were, in the view of many liberals, anti-environmentalist. That Reagan - you know, a lot of liberals felt Reagan was shallow, that he was a good communicator but he didn't necessarily have a very deep grasp of his own policies. So, I guess I'm just interested in your take on that.

Prof. BRINKLEY: I would suggest that the left in America has turned Reagan into a bit of - what Clark Clifford, the Democrat, called that he's an amiable dunce. Well, he wasn't a dunce. We now have documentary evidence Reagan was a much more hands-on president then the liberals want to admit.

And so the left has to drop, I think, the cartoon image of Ronald Reagan and see him as Sean Wilentz, Princeton University historian, has recently done well in his book, "The Age Of Reagan," to see how he played the political crises of his day very astutely.

And we - you don't have to, if you're on the left, embrace Ronald Reagan. He was conservative. He didn't do things that liberals would want. But I think from the perspective of time, particularly after eight years of George W. Bush, some of Reagan's restraints have to be admired.

GROSS: You touched on this earlier, but I'd like you to elaborate on it. On election night, you said that with the election of Barack Obama the age of Reagan is over. So would you elaborate on that?

Prof. BRINKLEY: In Reagan's diaries he writes, I love FDR. Reagan says, I voted for Franklin Roosevelt four times and I - everything about the New Deal I like. What I'm trying to do is roll back the great society. When Johnson came in after the Kennedy assassination in '64, Johnson continued federal programs. Reagan was trying to turn back Johnson's great society, and that by doing so starting in '80, he controlled the political agenda in this country. Tax - you couldn't run for office, Democrat or Republican, if you didn't want a tax cut. Democrats were afraid to call themselves liberals because of what Reagan did to them.

Obama's changed all that. He's a progressive. And so you're seeing the energy of Reagan over. You saw it at the end of the Bush administration with the big bailout for the economy. The federal government is now back in vogue. The people are looking for the federal government, not the private sector, to solve problems. Hence, we are in now the beginning of a new progressive movement with the Obama election.

GROSS: As a presidential historian, what are some of the things you're looking for, watching out for in the early days of the Obama presidency?

Prof. BRINKLEY: My concern about Obama is that he may be surrounding himself with so many Bill Clinton people who tend to triangulate, who tend to want to operate from the center, and that's smart politics but it's not visionary leadership. If Theodore Roosevelt thought like that, we never would have had our - he never would have put aside 240 million acres saving our beautiful forests and parks and monuments. Roosevelt created U.S. fish and wildlife and bird reserves, and he had no - everybody was against him but he did it because he used the power of the bully pulpit and used executive orders to do what was right for America from a long-term perspective.

Obama does not want to get in a situation where everything he does is so watered down for political expediency that he loses his visionary side. There are things he must do because they're the right things to do for what America represents. When I say America, it's the America of the Constitution, of the Declaration, America that created national parks, it's the America of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and second inaugural. He needs to keep that vision of what this country is alive because otherwise you'll get mired in compromise. Yes, you might be able to win re-election, and yes, you might be able to do some things, but I think we're in a stage in our country now we need to do some big things well.

And it's going - there's pain involved with that. You can't be a leader without pain. The great Theodore Roosevelt used to say, you know, the point of leadership is to lead, not to triangulate. And so as much as we're - I think Obama needs to develop a consensus and try to work from a kind of unified front, I think he's got to do some big things quickly or else the inertia of middle-roading it will just overwhelm him.

GROSS: Douglas Brinkley, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University. He edited the book of Reagan's White House diaries. Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new CD by Jon Hassell who's known for his mix of ambient electronico, world fusion and minimalism. This is Fresh Air.

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