Historians Discuss Reagan’s Legacy
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GWEN IFILL: Ronald Reagan was the oldest man ever to serve as president, the longest-living ex-president, and the first American president to serve two full terms since Dwight David Eisenhower.
We look at the legacy of those years with presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, director of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; journalist and author Haynes Johnson; and Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University.
Richard, what would you say would be the most enduring feature of Ronald Reagan’s legacy?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, everyone this weekend has talked about winning the Cold War, that will be part of the historical debate, that certainly is an enormous part of the legacy. Let me suggest something that people haven’t talked about very much.
He really probably more than any president since FDR transformed the political landscape, and that’s not easy to do. FDR shattered the political consensus that he found in place in 1933, and he left behind a new consensus and an army of followers who for 50 years really defined American politics. And Ronald Reagan really followed in his footsteps, even if they charted a different course.
American conservatism before Ronald Reagan, conservatives were people who were fighting a rear guard against the 20th century. They invited caricature; they were overfed men in bat wing collars and little old ladies in tennis shoes who worried about fluoridation in their water. Ronald Reagan not only put a smile on the face of conservatism, his conservatism was not only optimistic, it was futuristic.
And that I think is an enormous part of his legacy, one that is still unfolding and, don’t forget, there’s a whole generation of young people who came of age during the Reagan years, many of whom are in this White House, others in all other sorts of fields, so the Reagan legacy marches on into the 21st century.
GWEN IFILL: Michael, if you use Richard’s term of the new consensus that was formed, does that constitute the Reagan Revolution we hear about, and if it does, how would that manifest itself in policy?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It does a little bit, although, you know, a large part of the Reagan Revolution was reduce the size of government. Reagan couldn’t do it, nor could any later president, nor could any Republican today who might run now or in four years, so it didn’t quite happen.
At the same time Richard is right in terms of there are certain things now that are centrist that 25 years ago were conservative. Bill Clinton who was a Great Society liberal when he started out was the one in 1996 who said the era of big government is over, and also signed a welfare bill that was anything but liberal.
He did that because the consensus had moved, he was afraid not to. He wanted to run for reelection. And the other thing that Reagan did that I think did buck this is one test of a leader is if he or she creates an institution that carries on his or her ideas after they leave the stage. The Republican Party in 1980 was moderate and even liberal enough so that the elder George Bush almost got that nomination in 1980, he was a moderate from the Northeast.
Nowadays, the Republican Party is 90 to 100 percent a Ronald Reagan party, conservative southwestern, and also very religious. He changed it, and it is in a way an engine of Reaganism that carries that on.
GWEN IFILL: Roger, let’s talk about his domestic policy. Pick up where Michael left off and say how did this Reaganism translate into domestic policy in a way that still reverberates today.
ROGER WILKINS: Well, Reagan was an incredible combination of a person who was very optimistic, upbeat, but underneath there were some really ugly parts of his politics.
He was, I said once before on this program, he capitalized on anti-black populism by going to Philadelphia and Mississippi , for example, in the beginning of his campaign in 1980.
Nobody had ever heard of Philadelphia and Mississippi outside of Mississippi , except as the place where three civil rights workers had been lynched – in 1964 – he said I believe in states rights.
Everybody knew what that meant. He went to Stone Mountain , Georgia , where the Ku Klux Klan used to burn its crosses, and he said Jefferson Davis is a hero of mine.
He was rebuked by the Atlanta newspapers – they said we don’t need that any more here. He went to Charlotte, North Carolina one of the most successful busing for integration programs in the country and he said I’m against busing and again the Charlotte papers rebuked him. And the impact of that plus his attacks on welfare women, welfare queens in Cadillacs, for example. And his call for cutting the government. He didn’t cut the government; the military bloomed in his time. But programs for poor people day diminished entirely and America became a less civilized and less decent place.
GWEN IFILL: Haynes, how does the Ronald Reagan that Roger is describing here conflate with the Ronald Reagan we’ve been reading and hearing about for the past 48 hours, the man who brought down the Berlin Wall, the man who brought freedom to the world?
HAYNES JOHNSON: That’s the wonderful question about Ronald Reagan. What we’re watching here on the screen, you see these pictures, the wonderful pictures in our head, this ebullient, happy, confident man.
I think his greatest legacy, I agree he changed the conservative policies of the country, he made a difference in our politics that no one has done since Roosevelt, all that’s true, and there are differences in policies, domestic and foreign.
But the ability as a leader to stamp himself on the consciousness of the country, and bend history to his will – Reagan did that – I happen to think a lot of policies by my view were wrong, whatever that’s worth, but he did it.
He was right when he said a minute ago, you showed up clip, we made a difference. And we did it — he did do that. And that’s a very rare thing in our lifetime to see presidents come in and through the power of his personality, persona, and good luck too, a bad period of history, a lot of gloomy things that had happened, the taking of the hostages, 21 percent on the inflation rate and all that, Watergate … then he comes in and promises, we’re going to be great again.
And he was able to convince the country and that’s why I think a lot of what we’re seeing now is a response to that picture of Ronald Reagan, the ebullient, happy, care-free elegant not cocky but always waiting smiling, and that enabled him to get the policies, which made him very extreme, through the Congress, a Democratic Congress at the time, and even lasting today.
GWEN IFILL: And, Richard, interestingly enough, this president’s legacy also encompasses his ability to deal with the leaders of a nation once called an evil empire and later embraced Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost became sort of the definition of a success in Ronald Reagan’s time. You work out for us how those two things come together.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Again, to pick up on what Haynes said, this is part of the great, the elusiveness, the surprising quality of Reagan, because Reagan made his own journey — everyone expected Reagan, the ultimate old Cold Warrior in 1981. And in fact for much of his first term relations between and the United States and the Soviet Union were absolutely frozen.
And yet the second term, again, the popular notion is that the Reagan second term was pretty rocky, arguably, it was in rocky in some ways historically; however, the greater accomplishments surrounding the IMF Treaty, and in fact the reversal of the Cold War but remember Ronald Reagan was the most unconventional political figure of his time. Most politicians are incrementalists; they think in baby steps. Ronald Reagan tended to leap frog the conventional wisdom and he did –
GWEN IFILL: If I may jump in there — for instance, being the former union leader who managed to fire the union members in the Air Traffic Controllers strike.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Which actually had a significant impact, believe it or not, on arms control because it delivered a message after the drift of the 70′s that this was a man who behind the velvet, behind the charm, behind the honeyed words, there were absolute steel and when he aid he would do something, no whatever the risk, the boldness involved, he probably would do it. And that sent a very powerful signal to Moscow that reverberated years later.
GWEN IFILL: But, Michael, you pointed out a moment ago that the President — one of the things President Reagan promised to do was to shrink the size of government. Yet, the Defense Department doubled during this time and there were huge deficits which were part of that legacy.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure did, and that’s one of the things that history does, because the deficits were a big problem at the time, he was justly criticized but much later we’ve got to sort of make decisions, was this the right thing, and increasingly it is very possible that that defense spending which caused those deficits may have been necessary to send a message to Moscow that Reagan was serious, the Soviets could not hope to compete with us so, if those deficits brought about the end of the Cold War, historically they were probably justified.
The other thing, I disagree a little bit with Richard in terms of saying that Reagan changed on the Soviet Union . I think he was totally consistent because you go back to 1979 and 1980, what he was saying was we have to demonstrate will of the Soviets.
Once we do that, they’ll have new leadership, it comes to us with concessions, that’s exactly what happened with Mikhail Gorbachev, so essentially he was just accepting to some extent Gorbachev’s surrender.
GWEN IFILL: Were tax cuts an important part of his legacy, Roger?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, they’re than enormous part of his legacy. Remember — I don’t know whether it was O’Neil or Woodward who quotes Dick Cheney as saying Reagan taught us that deficits don’t count. And it became almost a theological part of the Republican program.
GWEN IFILL: And it remains such?
ROGER WILKINS: That’s right. To cut taxes and what it has done, you know, Brandeis once said that taxes are what we pay for civilization, and when we cut taxes, generally what we do, we don’t cut military, we cut programs for poor people. And so you increase the misery in the country and that’s part of the legacy.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Of course, one of the myths of this is that yes he believed in cutting taxes passionately, no question about that; believed in fighting communism and all that, and shrinking the size of government.
Government didn’t, it increased 7 percent or something like – actual employment of the government in those years.
He did cut the taxes and he had to sign 13 tax increases but they were never called tax increases; they were revenue enhancers. The money raised up and so forth, and he got away with it.
ROGER WILKINS: And he believed it.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And believed it because of the persona of the man and also the country was in moving well and finally the Cold War was over.
ROGER WILKINS: He said those, he believed those things and the American people could see he believed what he said and they liked it.
GWEN IFILL: Richard, you want to jump in on this?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I was going to say, one of the paradox else of this paradoxical man, the only professional actor to ever occupy the Oval Office was remembered by most Americans for an authenticity.
Even his gaffs tended to contribute to the sense that this man was real. He went into politics had he was 55 years old, they sense that he went into politician because of ideas, because of things he believed, not because he needed to be president or because he needed an office for his ego, and I think that contributed in no small measure to the bond that he had, even with people who disagreed his ideas.
GWEN IFILL: So if the president, said, Michael, for instance, that vis-à-vis Iran Contra, that he believed in his heart one thing but the facts show otherwise, that was something that people were willing to accept?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s exactly it, because here is the biggest trouble spot in the Reagan presidency. He was in danger of impeachment in 1986, there was a suggestion that he had knowingly ordered the diversion of funds from the Nicaraguan contras, which would have been against the law, and because of that bond with the people, the committee on Capitol Hill took impeachment off the table at the beginning of the investigations, they essentially said among themselves, we like President Reagan, we don’t want him to fail, the country has been through Vietnam, Watergate, a lot of other failed presidents — we don’t want to do that. And also Americans when they heard him go on television and say in my heart I don’t believe I traded arms for hostages, but the facts tell me so, I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again, that ended it, it shows how important it is for a president to have though that kind of appeal.
GWEN IFILL: Does that mean, Roger, that he was a creature of his time uniquely?
ROGER WILKINS: He was a creature of himself, because he did all of these things, you can tell I didn’t like his policies at all. But I had contact with him, and I would tell him I disagree with those policies and he would be so genuine, he would say we can work this out.
GWEN IFILL: Did you ever work it out?
ROGER WILKINS: Of course not. But –
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They don’t even try nowadays.
ROGER WILKINS: But you couldn’t walk away saying that is a hateful human being. You say I hate those policies, and that was a large part of his success.
HAYNES JOHNSON: One of the things on the clip you showed earlier the scene of Ronald Reagan giving the speech and the pajamas –the two people behind him, I don’t remember them doing this at all, is Tip O’Neill and George Bush, and they’re laughing, their political rivals, that’s why he got away with it, they liked it; they enjoyed him. The Democrats liked him and even the liberals, they thought he was a doddering old fool, but they liked him. There wasn’t a sense of hatred for him.
GWEN IFILL: Richard, was he a creature of his time?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think he transcended his time. He was both a traditionalist, someone who for millions of people who felt that our culture was adrift – embodied what we call traditional values – but he was also a visionary; he was a man , you had a sense he couldn’t wait to get to the 21st century just to see all of his belief in the future confirmed.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Let’s go back where we started. Michael, was this a revolution that he left behind?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Revolution, I think that’s too strong a word, but he did change things in a big way. He wanted to end the Cold War on his time and do it by a very controversial program of increasing defense spending, challenging the Soviets, it worked — whether it was entirely his doing or not, historians will argue for years. And he also wanted to make the same more conservative country and his party a more conservative, he did that too – both of those things in 1980 most people would have thought almost impossible.
GWEN IFILL: Michael Beschloss, Roger Wilkins, Haynes Johnson and Richard Norton Smith, thank you all very much.