Today is Ronald Reagan’s birthday and I was trying to decide whether he was the greatest president of the 20th Century. I decided that FDR edged him out, but only because Roosevelt lived in more interesting times. Both presidents presided over inflection points in American history and both responded well to circumstances they faced.
After a while all presidents belong simply to the American people. That is why I can put Reagan and Roosevelt in the same category. The fact that Reagan undid many of the things Roosevelt had wrought does not affect the analysis. Roosevelt did things appropriate for the 1930s & 1940s, things that helped make American prosperous for decades. But nothing lasts forever and even the most effective solutions ossify and break apart with time. By the 1980s the appropriate thing for Reagan to do was change them. Solutions must be appropriate to the circumstances.
By the end of the 1970s, most people could see something was wrong. Stagflation was sitting on the economy like a raven. The old nostrums no longer produced desirable results. Even Jimmy Carter recognized this. It was Carter who deregulated important industries such as trucking & airlines. (Carter also did a lot to deregulate the financial industry. While we may see that as unwise now, it was appropriate for the times.)
But in 1980, Americans wanted something new and better, true change not mere adjustment. This is where Reagan came in. He was an immensely popular president, who actually won a majority in the three man race in 1980 and was reelected with nearly 59% of the popular votes when he carried every state except Minnesota. His opponents did not (and still do not) understand him. To them he was just an amiable dunce.
Recent scholarship has enhanced Reagan’s reputation as an independent thinker and debunked the disinformation of the time that Reagan was fed his lines, like the actor he had been. However, Reagan himself seemed comfortable with their assessments.
Like Roosevelt, whom Oliver Wendell Holmes described at a man with “second-class intellect” but a “first-class temperament.”, letting others underestimate him allowed Reagan to disarms, cajole and co-opt all those smart guys who would rather be correct than right. Now that we have access to Reagan’s hand written notes we can see that his ideas were based on his extensive reading and experience. He was a one man think tank, but he understood that there is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.
Ronald Reagan led a remarkable life. He was no child of privilege and his lifeguard job & diploma from Eureka College hardly impressed the elites. We can see the development of his character from his time as a New Deal Democrat, to the time when faced down communists in the Screen Actors’ Guild (Reagan was the only president who had been a union leader), to his getting to know the country as spokesman for GE, to his political career and election as president.
He was the right man for the times. Inflation raged at more than 13%. Unemployment reached more than 10% some months. The Soviet Union was on the march. Energy prices were spiking. The America we envision in our nightmares is what we actually experienced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (We still have not reached those levels of unemployment and we have essentially no inflation at all.) Ronald Reagan’s presidency marked a turning point for our country. It really was morning in America. He was a great man and a great American.
The photo, BTW, is Alex in 2003 with a life-sized statue of Ronald Reagan at the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City.