Understanding the two sides of Reagan: polarizing political icon and pragmatic president

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the latest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

As the 2016 presidential elections start ramping up, with the biggest field of candidates ever, we take a look at the man who in many ways redefined the modern Republican Party, Ronald Reagan.

Historian and University of Texas Professor H.W. Brands offers a new perspective on the politician and the pragmatist. His latest book is "Reagan: The Life."

Jeffrey Brown recently talked with him.

JEFFREY BROWN: H.W. Brands, welcome.

H.W. BRANDS, Author, "Reagan: The Life": Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: A life so documented, so public, so much written of, what did you feel was left to say or important to say about Ronald Reagan?

H.W. BRANDS: To me, the puzzle of Ronald Reagan is how a comparatively ordinary man, someone with not extraordinary talent, accomplished such extraordinary results.

At the age of 50, no one expected that this was going to be the guy who would become, at least in my interpretation, one of the two most important presidents of the 20th century.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? That's where you rank him?

H.W. BRANDS: Yes. And there is Franklin Roosevelt, who really dominates the first half of the 20th century, pushing American politics in a liberal direction, and Ronald Reagan, who dominates the second half of the 20th century, and pushes American politics back in a conservative direction.

Toward the end of the 1964 presidential campaign, Reagan gives a speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater. It was like a screen test for a new career.

RONALD REAGAN: This idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except the sovereign people.

H.W. BRANDS: His Hollywood career had ended. And he really didn't know what his future was going to be. He was given a chance to mount this new stage. And he gave a speech that, in fact, Reagan supporters even to this day call it the speech.

It was so powerful that people the next day started forming Reagan for president committees for this guy who had never been thought of in a political sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of people to this day think that — there was a sense of it's hard to know the real Ronald Reagan.

ACTOR: Hello, little girl. What's your name?

ACTRESS: Lisa Myers.

JEFFREY BROWN: You probably remember the old "Saturday Night Live" skit where he's sort of avuncular, featherbrained while the cameras are on.

ACTOR: Well, it was nice meeting you.

ACTOR: Come on, Lisa. Come on.

ACTOR: Bye-bye.

ACTRESS: Bye.

ACTOR: Back to work.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: They all go away, and he's suddenly a micromanager, right, knows everything.

Was it hard to get a sense of the — your arms around the guy, to know him?

H.W. BRANDS: That skit overstates something that has a kernel of truth to it.

Reagan conspired in the underestimation of his own ability. And he…

JEFFREY BROWN: Conspired it means?

H.W. BRANDS: Yes, in the sense that he was quite willing to let people underestimate him.

And Clark Clifford infamously called him an amiable dunce. Well, he wouldn't have accepted that. But he didn't pretend to be the master of everything that happened in his administration. In fact, he often held himself out as a contrast to Jimmy Carter, who really was that micromanager in the Oval Office, and who had a very unsuccessful presidency. Reagan focused on a couple of things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give me an anecdote or an example of that.

H.W. BRANDS: Well, Reagan gave the speech that opened his political career in 1964.

And in that speech, he laid out two things for the United States. And the two things were, we need to shrink government at home. We need to defeat communism abroad. And Reagan in essence gave that same speech again and again during the 25 years of his political life.

RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: You're working in an area where these debates are still with us, right? This is the most partisan, in a way, of subjects, a polarizing figure. How did he become that? And why is it still with us?

H.W. BRANDS: Well, Reagan is still an icon for Republicans because there are essentially two Reagans. There is the Reagan who gave the speeches. This is the Reagan who was the candidate.

And if you read Reagan's speeches, then they read just like the playbook from the Tea Party today. It's 100 percent conservative. And so the most conservative members of the Republican Party today can read Reagan, they can watch his speeches on YouTube and elsewhere and they can say, that's our guy.

But there is also the Reagan who was governor of California, who was president of the United States, the Reagan who knew that the point of getting elected was to govern. And to govern in a democracy is to compromise. Reagan used to say that he would rather get 80 percent of what he wanted than go over the cliff with his flags flying.

This is the Reagan that would make Tea Party types uncomfortable today. Depending on which Reagan you look at, you can take a different interpretation away.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is also the Ronald Reagan who was a Democrat in his youth, right…

H.W. BRANDS: Ah.

JEFFREY BROWN: … if you look back, you go back even further.

Do you see a fairly direct line for what he became, or do you see man who was adjusting as he went?

(CROSSTALK)

H.W. BRANDS: Well, there's a direct line, but it has a big bend in it.

JEFFREY BROWN: A big bend.

H.W. BRANDS: When it comes to political philosophy, Reagan's first political hero was Franklin Roosevelt. And, as a young man, he voted four times for Franklin Roosevelt.

Now, Reagan's political philosophy eventually went 180 degrees the other way. So he became a conservative. But his idea of being president, his model for being president remained Franklin Roosevelt. He understood that Roosevelt's power came from Roosevelt's ability to convey a vision to the American people and to share that vision. And Reagan, when he became president, did exactly the same thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: What role do you think he has today?

H.W. BRANDS: Reagan remains this anchor for conservative political philosophy today.

And if you want — if you are a conservative and you want to know what the conservative agenda should be, go read Reagan's speeches. On the other hand, if you want to understand how presidents actually make changes, beyond just making speeches, how they make changes, then take a look at Reagan as he was the governor, as he was governor and then as president, how he actually operated in office.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think this is one of the things that we have not understood very well, his abilities as a politician?

H.W. BRANDS: Exactly.

He's underestimated, I think, by both liberals and conservatives. The liberals don't want to give him credit for what he accomplished. And the conservatives often don't want to believe that he made these compromises in a liberal direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

The book is "Reagan: The Life."

H.W. Brands, thanks so much.

H.W. BRANDS: My pleasure.

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