Robert Dallek is a historian known for his expertise in the American Presidency. His book on Reagan's legacy is titled Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism.
On Reagan's childhood experience in Dixon, Illinois
Well, Reagan grows up in 1920s Dixon, Illinois and it's the heartland of America. It's a time when Americans are particularly drawn to this small town world, because it's beginning to pass. It's beginning to be eclipsed by the rise of cities than in small towns, or in rural areas, and so as this slips away, Americans tend to value it all the more, and it becomes romanticized, and exaggerated, its virtues become exaggerated in some ways. And Reagan imbibes those values. He romanticizes his childhood, remembering the quality of life there as something so appealing, so comfortable, so attractive, it couldn't have possibly been as attractive and comfortable as he depicted it, but it was part of the romantic notion that not only he had, but millions of Americans shared, you see. And I think this was part of Reagan's effectiveness, his political genius, if you will. His capacity to share with the mass of the society so many of the romantic notions that we've had about American life, about American politics, about American culture, and this, I think partly comes out of that experience of the 1920s in Dixon, Illinois.
On Reagan as Governor of California
Reagan, as Governor of California as in so much of his political career was something of a contradiction. He runs in 1966, as a staunch Goldwater conservative who will combat the radicalism on the Berkeley campus, combat crime, combat the loss of law and order in the society, will reduce taxes, will be against big government, will restore to the people their autonomy and freedom from government. Coins the phrase "Government is not the solution, government is the problem." But yet, as Governor, he's also a pragmatist, he's a great pragmatic figure and he's willing to sign on to a withholding tax, which one would have assumed from everything he said, to the moment he signed the tax bill that he would never do that. He spoke of family values and saw abortion as something that offended his religious values and his sense of the autonomy of the individual again. And yet he signs into law the abortion, the liberal abortion statute in California, because he's also a practical politician. And he's very effective at getting away with this, with these contradictions, because he's a very appealing figure. And his rhetoric is what is so appealing to so many people in the state. People don't pay that much attention to what he does. Oh, I mean his career there was nothing but contradictions, which it wasn't. There were some major contradictions. But he gets away with this, because he does rhetorically and in terms of his actions largely live up to his conservative agenda.
On America Following World War II
Well, America in the late 1940s, immediately after WWII, goes through a political, sort of political upheaval, political international upheaval. Coming out of WWII, there was the assumption, the hope, the vision of a world at peace, of a kind of Wilsonian universalism, that we and the Soviets would get along, we'd have a kind of lovefest for as far into the future as anyone could see. China would be our ally, there wasn't going to be a Chinese civil war, the Big Four, Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union and China would work together to assure world peace, and work through the United Nations, the fulfillment of Woodrow Wilson's dream. The end product of WWII was that very quickly, we find ourselves locked in a confrontation with the Soviet Union over its attempt to control Eastern Europe, over questions in East Asia and in the Middle East. A dividing world between east and west, which is embodied in '46 and '47 with Churchill's famous Iron Curtain speech, with Truman Doctrine in '47, the Marshall Plan in June of '47, what you get is the beginnings of the Cold War. In Hollywood, there is a struggle over this, because Hollywood during WWII had been a kind of propaganda machine, preaching the virtues of universalism, preaching ideas which conformed to what Americans wanted to hear about not only prosperity, but freedom, liberty, the promotion of democracy against a totalitarian system. Now, the Soviet Union was our great ally in WWII. There were many people who were pained at the fact that we fell into this Cold War, and of course, Franklin Roosevelt's former vice president, Henry Wallace is an advocate of the idea that Harry Truman and the conservative State Department in the United States are promoting this Cold War. They're the architects, they're the ones responsible for this Cold War with the Soviet Union. If only Franklin Roosevelt, we would have avoided this confrontation. And so there's a division in Hollywood among people, as there is a division among people across the country. What is the reality, is it that the Soviets are aggressive and expansionistic, that you can't trust the Communists, that they're intent upon world wide revolution, or is this a political blunder on the part of the Truman administration that they frightened, they scared the Soviets into being expansionistic in Eastern Europe? So that division is going on. Reagan comes down firmly on the side of the anti-communists, of those who are of a mind to believe that the Soviets did threaten us. But there is a division, and people become very, it's a lot of acrimony, and people are vindictive toward those who are on one side of the equation or the other.
On Reagan and Foreign Affairs
Ronald Reagan in foreign affairs, I think, was someone who had certain, very general ideas, general propositions by which he lives: To combat communism, to build up the American military power to assure our national security against any conceivable threat. Now, he was well served by a group of foreign policy advisors who were sensible, who were realistic, people like Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz, Jim Baker, they helped him greatly.
And he was also served by circumstance. He happened to be there at the right time, it was the right moment, the Soviet Union was going into an eclipse, it could not sustain itself with its economic and internal contradictions for all that much longer, and Reagan happened to be there and had the wisdom to take advantage of it. So, it would say he has a general design, but the fact that he appears to be so successful in foreign affairs also has to do a great deal with circumstance, with luck. As the great American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Events are in the saddle and ride mankind," and Reagan was fortunate that the events turned in his favor.
Jimmy Carter, by contrast, in the 1970s, was very unlucky. he had to deal with the oils crunch, he had to deal with the Afghani invasion by the Soviets, a series of events that served him very poorly. Reagan was lucky, but he was also, had a good general design, and he had effective advisors.
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?