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Jewish World Review Feb. 13, 2001 / 20 Shevat, 5761

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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The durable Reagan



Seen in a new light at 90; Bush copies the original

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
LAST WEEK Ronald Reagan became the third American president to turn 90. He does not know it, but two policies that were central to his administration–tax cuts and missile defense–are once again major initiatives of a new Republican president.

The standard image of Reagan, as portrayed by a press corps that was overwhelmingly Democratic, is that he was a clueless actor programmed by his handlers, "an amiable dunce," in the words of Washington insider Clark Clifford. Now comes evidence that the contrary is true, in the form of "Reagan in His Own Hand" a collection of more than 200 scripts for five-minute radio broadcasts that Reagan wrote between 1975 and 1979. They cover subjects from arms control agreements to Social Security, pesticides to the Panama Canal. They show that Reagan was a voracious reader, a persuasive logician, and a graceful writer. And they show, if there is still reason to doubt it, that he did his own original thinking.

Reagan himself never wanted to come off as an intellectual or a deep thinker. As a boy, he was a shy bookworm who wore glasses and could not see well enough to play baseball. As a teenager he reinvented himself, as a swimmer and lifeguard, an actor, a class president–and, perhaps most important, as just a regular guy. In Dixon, Ill., he listened to Chicago radio in the 1920s–the most innovative entertainment and sports broadcasting of the day–and developed the ambition to succeed in mass media, first radio and then movies, in which cheerfulness was an asset and cerebration a liability. He ran for governor of California not as an expert but as a citizen-politician.

All the while, the radio scripts show, he was thinking, originally. No political consultant pressed Reagan to endorse the 30 percent Kemp-Roth tax cut; he just believed that taxes should be lower and that government would not be cut back until they were. No defense expert made him propose missile defense; his March 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative was his own project, in which he persevered during the intense Reykjavik negotiations. He believed the world would be safer if Americans (and Russians) did not live under the threat of mass destruction.

The power of ideas. Reagan showed that a president with original ideas and the determination to put them into effect could change America and the world. George W. Bush is trying to do the same thing with tax cuts and missile defense. During his campaign, Bush was told time and again by the punditocracy that voters didn't want tax cuts and that Congress would resist them. But once Bush was in office, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan decided that conditions had changed and that tax cuts were now preferable to eliminating the national debt. Democrats in Congress, once obdurate against an across-the-board cut in tax rates, now seem ready to accept it.

Similarly, Bush seems determined to move ahead on missile defense, despite the qualms of Democrats, European allies, and Russians. On February 3, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Wehrkunde conference in Munich that "The United States intends to develop and deploy a missile defense designed to protect our people and forces against a limited ballistic missile attack, and is prepared to assist friends and allies threatened by missile attack to deploy such forces." Rumsfeld promised to consult with allies–but only about what the United States decides to do.

That was the upshot of a joint press conference with Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in Washington February 6. "We hope that in the months ahead, as we develop our concept and as we put programs behind that concept, we will demonstrate to our friends in Europe and to our friends in Russia and China and elsewhere that this is a very sensible concept," Powell said. The administration is not going to embarrass the government of Tony Blair by calling for the use of the Fylingdales radar station in Yorkshire before the British election, expected to be set for May 3; but the result is not in doubt. As Cook told reporters, whatever the United States does on missile defense, "We would seek to respond in the way you would expect of your closest ally." In other words, Britain will go along and help get Europe on board.

Bush is now being patronized as Reagan was 20 years ago, even as he rolls out well-considered programs that win bipartisan support. It brings to mind one of Reagan's radio scripts about the images of Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Dwight D. Eisenhower, the "one as a lackluster, almost laughable figure," the other as "a genial golf player who didn't stir things up much." He recounts crisply the prosperity and peace that prevailed during their presidencies. "Well, as I say, you can make up your own mind about the images versus the man, but maybe," he writes in 1975, as America reeled from its loss in Vietnam and swooned from inflation, "we ought to go back and see what they did that we aren't doing." Results matter, and determination tends to produce results. Even his adversaries can now see Reagan better, in his own words. Someday they may be able to see more clearly this latest Republican president as well.



JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

Up

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©2000, Michael Barone