TOPICS > Politics

Shields and Brooks

June 11, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, some thoughts about today as well as the week and the legacy of Ronald Reagan from Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Mark, how would you describe the meeting, not only of today but of this whole week of and about Ronald Reagan?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, there are only two American presidents who voted four times for Franklin Roosevelt and once for Harry Truman, they were Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman. And David McCullough wrote of Harry Truman and he said – in his book – and he said, Harry Truman was comfortable being Harry Truman. He liked being Harry Truman. He never thought of being anybody else but Harry Truman. I think that came through about Ronald Reagan to people.

The outpouring, they saw in somebody who was very, very comfortable with who he was. There was an authenticity about him. I mean, it just struck me in a very sort of trite way, but the presidential vacation, we’ve all seen presidential vacations where it’s so much more presidential than they were vacation. The president is somewhere and aides fly in, in blue suits and red ties, and they brief him because the president can never really be relaxing. Ronald Reagan took a real vacation. I mean, he went out there and he cleared brush off trails. There must be enough brush somewhere to provide energy for the state of California well into the 22nd century. He really did. And there was an authenticity about him.

Finally, I’ll just say, remembering him and seeing the highlight films all week, the conservative movement did not have a face, it did not have a smiling face. It had Bob Taft, Calvin Coolidge. The liberals had Jack Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan put a smiling face on conservatism and he changed conservatism from it’s five minutes until midnight until it’s five minutes until dawn. That was a big, big difference. JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that?

DAVID BROOKS: First, I would agree with that last point about his effect on conservatism. I think this week was a chance for all Americans, Republicans and Democrats, to reconnect with the American dream. I mean, here’s a kid who grew up in Illinois, went to California, became a movie star then became president, devoted one of the greatest evils in the 20th century. That’s a pretty good American dream story.

And the second thing I think that happened that was also a cultural moment rather than a political moment was I think there was a feeling that a certain set of values, in recession, the desire that Reagan embodied, the desire to cling on those gallantry, gallantry under fire, when he was shot, romance, romance for his wife, romance of the glory day of Hollywood, and a certain cleanness to his life.

The elder President Bush told a story today about the note Reagan left on the desk when the elder Bush succeeded him, and the note said, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” I was struck by the word “turkey” because another president might have used a rougher word, but Reagan had an essential cleanness about him that one associates with the Depression era, the optimism and the all-Americanness of it. I think we feel that might be slipping away.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark, that this was a cultural event as much as it was a political event, I mean, the life and legacy and this tribute to Ronald Reagan?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Yes, in the sense, Jim, that it does… Ronald Reagan scored two landslide victories over Democrats, 44 states in 1980, 49 states he carried in 1984. There was none of the bitterness and resentment after those defeats that there is today.

JIM LEHRER: Why — Why not?

MARK SHIELDS: I think we can look at reasons.

JIM LEHRER: Sure, but in terms of Ronald Reagan the individual?

MARK SHIELDS: Ronald Reagan didn’t, I mean, I disagree strenuously with his policies. I thought Reaganomics was disaster. I mean, it was… tax cuts for the well off and budget cuts for the not-well-off. If you didn’t have your money, it’s because the damn poor people are hoarding it somewhere. There was about him an absence of any meanness. His opponents were his adversaries. They were not enemies ever. That was the Reagan style. I mean, he really did reach across the isle in a way that was common in Washington at that time. There is a whole host of stories here, why it’s happened, but he just did embody… he never demonized the opposition.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, David, that part of the… one of the many reasons for this outpouring is a kind of longing for a return to that kind of politics?

DAVID BROOKS: A sense of national unity. It was bitter. I think until this Iraq War, I think the contra fight about the Nicaraguan contras was as bitter a little Washington fight that I’ve seen. It was bitter. The debate over Reaganomics was bitter. People did hate him. A lot of people hated him. I was in a college bookstore when he was shot and there was happiness around.

JIM LEHRER: Really? Is that right?


MARK SHIELDS: I didn’t see that.

DAVID BROOKS: On the other hand, he never played in the feud. The feud was going on. He never played in the feud because he wasn’t going to get sucked into the feud and he leapt above it, and I thought a lot of people took out of this week and this life story, he was an exemplar of how to conduct oneself in politics. It’s possible to be bold. It’s possible to have policies the other side strongly disagrees with, but as long as you grant the other side the good intentions, then that’s the way to act. Not all of us lived up to that.

JIM LEHRER: Is it unrealistic to think that this outpouring will lead to any change in the way we do politics today because of… someone may say, hey, look at Ronald Reagan, look at what he did and look at the tribute that was paid to him. Maybe I ought to rethink the way – I mean, I’m talking I meaning everybody who is in the political world now. That’s just dream talk, right?

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah. Politics is the most imitated with the possible exception of political journalism, the most imitated of all human art forms and, you know, if people are reminded that someone that was that successful… I point out that there’s only been one president in 40 years that won an election by more than 10 percentage points. We buried him today. We’re now down to this likelihood, everyone is saying it’s 51, 49. If John Kerry wins, can he govern at 51 percent, can George Bush govern if he wins at 50.7? Ronald Reagan showed that the way he adopted was successful politically. It wasn’t just…

JIM LEHRER: It worked.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. It was not simply being decent to other people or whatever or kind to your opponents. I mean, it was very successful politically.

JIM LEHRER: Decency as a political strategy. Could that possibly pick up?

DAVID BROOKS: You know, as Mark says, there are deep structural reasons why we have this polarization, the country is segmenting. The other thing that Reagan did was his policies actually did work. I mean, he inherited stagflation. He saw through a very tough and bitter recession when Paul Volcker, the Fed chairman, clamped down. He did confront communism.

But at the end of the term it was clear that a lot of those things worked and the country was in much better shape. He won that second term in ’84 because he said, “Are you better off than you were four years ago” — and he was and the country felt it was, or at least a large percentage of the country felt they were. It was the ideological success of that mission which created the aura, the possibility of that majority and the good times.

JIM LEHRER: I have a hunch you don’t agree with that.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t think… I think Ronald Reagan did accomplish much and he did restore the presidency. He repurchased American optimism. He did a number of important things, but the number of homeless people in the country increased. I think it became official public policy that governmental action on behalf of the poor was something that would best be left to the private sector.

The irony, Jim, is this is a man who was enormously generous personally. He had great personal sympathy. I had the first one-on-one magazine interview with Ronald Reagan when he was president of the United States. Jim Brady called me. I went in for Inside Sports Magazine. I talked to Franklin Burkehart, who had been a teammate of Ronald Reagan’s at tiny Eureka College, one of the two black players on the team. They were scheduled to play an away game 15 miles away from Ronald Reagan’s home town. The coach went to the hotel, and the hotel, like all hotels in America 70 years ago, 75 years ago had a whites-only policy.

So the coach said, we can sleep on the bus. Reagan said, no, he said, just tell them there’s only room for some. I’ll take the two players home. He… the coach said, “you can do that?”. He walked right into his own home to Jack and Nelle Reagan, and this is a time when blacks and whites didn’t eat together, didn’t go to movies together. They spent the night there. I talked to Burkehart about it, who went on the get a doctorate at NYU, interesting man, I said, how do you explain him being opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, which broke the yolk of segregation in this country. He said, “I can’t understand it. I know what he’s like, but public policy doesn’t translate.”

JIM LEHRER: How does that strike you, Mark’s story? The dichotomy between his personality generosity and what is perceived, particularly among liberal democrats, as being anything but generous?

DAVID BROOKS: I think once he became president the policies he adopted were policies he thought would lift all votes. When he talked about supply-side economics, that was a heroic movement; he talked about economics differently than other presidents, as a way to inspire the country, to revitalize the energy of the country and create more mobility in the country so people could rise as he did. And as a matter of fact, what happened is the poverty rate rose through the ’70s. It plateaued in the ’80s. It didn’t get better but it didn’t get worse. The recovery I think he helped create and Paul Volcker helped create did improve a lot of American lives.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, much has been said already this week about all of what this might do to George W. Bush’s chances for reelection or John Kerry’s chances to get elected. What do you think, I mean, talking about what we have witnessed and experienced this week?

MARK SHIELDS: I think if the election were next Tuesday, I think it would be very good for President Bush because…


MARK SHIELDS: There is a sense of good-feeling in the country. He was part of this national ceremony. I don’t think anybody in the first Tuesday or first Monday after – the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November will say, I was undecided until today but I’m going to win one for the Gipper here. I don’t think that’s going to happen. In a strange way, President Bush was on his comeback week a week ago, Jim. He was going to Europe. He was going to Normandy, D-Day. He was going to get the blessing of the U.N. on the vote in Iraq, have the G-8 summit.

Instead of hearing him at Normandy, we heard Ronald Reagan – I mean, that eloquence that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. I don’t honestly know what George W. Bush said there. All we saw were highlight films of his eloquence, his humor, self-deprecating, his wit — his memorable leadership. I think in a strange way, it probably wasn’t… a week that should have been so great for the president was eclipsed.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think so. Well, first of all, if the Iraqi government is as serious as it seems to be, that will be the real rebound, the real rebound week, but I thought, first of all, Bush showed a few great qualities today. His little message there was self-effacing. He didn’t go out of his way to wrap himself around Reagan or wrap Reagan around him. I thought he did a very nice little speech that did not go over the top but was understated and really was about Reagan rather than about Bush. I think that showed some personal virtue.

At the same time, I do think what Reagan did — standing up to communism, calling it evil, championing democracy around the world, was a legacy that Bush inherits much more than the elder Bush did, and something that he can feed off, that he can inspire. I do think there is a continuity between the two foreign policies.

JIM LEHRER: Well, as they say in journalism, only time will tell. Thank you both very much.