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The Reagan Legacy

To honor his 90th birthday, historians take a look back at Ronald Reagan's two-term presidency.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Finally tonight, some conversation about Ronald Reagan. The former president turned 90 today. He's battling Alzheimer's disease and is recuperating at his California home from hip surgery last month. It's been 12 years since he left the presidency, and what does his eight years as president look like now? Well, we ask that of NewsHour regulars, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson, plus presidential biographer and author, Richard Norton Smith, historian Roger Wilkins, and Annelise Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution and coeditor of Reagan, "In His Own Words: The Writings of Ronald Reagan that Reveal his Revolutionary Vision for America."

    Ms. Anderson, in what way was Ronald Reagan a revolutionary?

  • ANNELISE ANDERSON:

    Well, I think he had a different view than that was held at the time in the 70s about our relationship to the Soviet Union and the possibilities for resolving it peacefully. He disagreed with mutual destruction and he disagreed with the idea that the Soviet Union was a legitimate state. His legacy is ending the Cold War without weapons being fired.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And that qualifies for the term revolutionary in your opinion?

  • ANNELISE ANDERSON:

    Yes I think so — I think this is probably the greatest political change of the latter half of the 20th century.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Haynes do you agree with that — that he's a revolutionary and deserves credit for that?

  • HAYNES JOHNSON:

    No, I don't. But that's neither here nor there. But I think that what he did do is he continued the policies of every president since Harry Truman in fighting the Cold War — committing the talent and 1 point — trillion dollars to fight the Cold War — 11 trillion dollars as a matter of fact — and he did prevail. He was a strong president — he was consequential. I would not call him a revolutionary. This is one thing about history — we'll debate these things for years — after we're gone.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What word would you use?

  • HAYNES JOHNSON:

    I would say he was a president rare among our times who came to office with a few ideas and he actually carried them out. If you look back to 20 years ago, what we're talking about right now, tax cuts — increasing defense spending — nuclear — Star Wars shield in the world — family values, all of these things are part of whatever a legacy — we talk about legacy with all of our president — that's true we're still playing off Ronald Reagan's ideas. So whether it's revolutionary or not, I would not agree with that, but he was a consequential president.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    A consequential president, Richard?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    I think so, and I would add one thing to what Haynes said. I think Ronald Reagan was a visionary president — and let's not forget the strategic defense initiative, which was a significant milestone on the road to the end of the Cold War — but he's also the most unconventional….

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But it never was built; it died before it ever got built.

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    Well, in effect, we're still talking about it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Exactly.

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    But it certainly seems to have had a significant impact on the thinking among the men in the Kremlin. Again, that is part of debate that will go on for a long time. But, you know, Ronald Reagan is such an unconventional politician. Haynes is right when he said he came to town with a few overriding convictions and he managed by and large to carry them out. In the process of doing that, however, he also changed the way people see conservatism. I mean, remember in 1981, most people thought that conservatives were people who wouldn't look at a new moon out of respect for the old. In 1981, a lot of people thought the American presidency was too big for any one man to handle; in 1981 most politicians, after all, were incrementalists — they were perfectly prepared to live with the equilibrium in terms of not only the Soviet Union but with the 50 years long seemingly irreversible trend by which power flowed to Washington, DC. Reagan began the revolutionary process of reversing that flow.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    So you also use the word revolutionary?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    I think so and I think more and more as time goes by and we see his continuing influence, by the way, not only Republicans but on Democrats. The reason that Bill Clinton was a new Democrat was because the old Democrats had failed to come up with a viable alternative to Ronald Reagan.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Roger Wilkins, what words or word would you use add — subtract?

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    Well, I don't want to be — on the president's birth date but I will be. First of all you have to say that all intense human sympathy goes out to the Reagan family and Mrs. Reagan, President Reagan. I've seen Alzheimer's and it's a human tragedy. I think Reagan was a brilliant president. I think his brilliance was in part and the only in a small part his ability to communicate and his ability to communicate was based I think on the fact that he believed what he said and people, no matter who they were, where on spectrum they were, believed that he believed what he said. And I think that alone made him very effective. I also think he had a brilliant political strategy. It was really quite simple. There was conservatism, tax cuts, anticommunism — the kind of a Goldwater conservatism. Then he brought in his persona kind of a nostalgia for the pre-60s America, which sat very well with a lot of conservatives, and then he also brought with him a lot of antiblack populism, which is very popular, worked for him, kept his party together but I think was quite bad for the country.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Antiblack populism what do you mean?

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    Well, every once in a while Reagan would just send out these laser beam signals that were crystal clear. His first speech in his campaign in 1980 was in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which nobody outside of Mississippi had ever heard of except for one thing and that was that three civil rights workers were killed there in 1964. Reagan said then I'm for states rights. If you say I'm for states rights in Mississippi, everybody knows what you're talking about. Some years later he went to Atlanta and he said Jefferson Davis is a hero of mine. Everybody knows what you're talking about then, too. He went to Charlotte, North Carolina, where the first federal court ordered the first bussing remedy and he said, I'm against bussing. So….

  • JIM LEHRER:

    So your point is that he believed this — he wasn't in it for political reasons or he was —

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    I think he believed it. He opposed the Martin Luther King holiday, yeah. I think these were things… they worked for him.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    We'll come back to that in a minute, but I want to get Michael's overview. What words would you use to describe Ronald Reagan's presidency — pick and choose or add any.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Occasionally historians have minor contribution to make and sometimes we forget that that's so, and one of them is that as time passes, you can siphon away sometimes the things that are perhaps less important from those that are really more important. I think the thing that really stands out most of all is what Annelise said, which is Reagan's role in ending the Cold War. I think you can make the argument and the evidence that is coming out more and more — I think suggests that if Ronald Reagan had not been President in the 1980s, the Cold War might have lasted longer and it might have ended on terms that were a lot less happy for the United States. Reagan came in 1980 against the advice of a lot of advisors and said, look in the campaign — if people are worried by this they should know that I'll come in with a big defense buildup because I the think the Soviet economy is a crunch point that if we demonstrate that we Americans have the economic strength and the will to prevail in the Cold War, we've got a chance to end in it in our lifetimes plus end nuclear weapons, which Reagan was absolutely serious about. That plus SDI, I think you can make the argument, caused the Soviets to essentially — Mikhail Gorbachev — in the late 1980s — sue for peace. And so if Reagan's supporters can make that tie and say that Reagan was largely responsible for the Cold War ending in the 1980s in a way that every Cold War President might only have dreamt of, then it's very hard to say that Ronald Reagan will not be thought of as a great president.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What about the revolutionary term that Ms. Anderson put on — would you agree that what he did in the Cold War area was revolutionary?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    I think it was departure. I almost always agree with Haynes, but I think on this one we'll have to debate it a little bit. I think it was a departure from containment because even within the Republican Party in the 1970s Nixon and Ford essentially were in favor of détente — sort of trying to control the increase in the nuclear arsenals, control the competition. Basically Reagan said I'm an abolitionist — I think we can destroy these arsenals and I'm not going to just preside over perhaps a steady increase in the Cold War — I think we can end it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Well, now, let's come back, Ms. Anderson, to the point, to the darker side that Roger alleged which is that he was an anti-black populist. How do you respond to that; do you read it the same way?

  • ANNELISE ANDERSON:

    What I have read and any closest acquaintance with Ronald Reagan now is the reading documents that he wrote himself and that's what the book that we've put together is — is documents in his own hand. We found 700 of them. And I don't find any evidence of that. I find it disturbing that he may have used that politically; on a personal level there are stories that contradict any idea that he is racist in any way.

  • ROGER WILKINS:

    I deliberately didn't say he was racist because I had a personal relationship with, not extensive, but I had one extraordinary conversation with him in which he called me to tell me he wasn't a racist because I had attacked his South Africa policy in a newspaper column and he was very disturbed by the implication that this had any… he spent 30 minutes on the telephone trying to convince me about it, and talked about how he had played football with black guys in high school and college in order to try to make that point.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Let me ask Richard about that. What you would add to that? What was your perception of Ronald Reagan in the race area?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    I think Ronald Reagan is one of those classic examples of conservative Republicans who on the personal level would gift their shirt off their back to someone in need whoever it is but who on a cultural and philosophical level can often be accused of at least insensitivity. But I would not make light of his even revolutionary effect in the domestic realm. Woodrow Wilson once said if you want to make enemies in Washington, change something. Reagan made more changes and I believe more significant changes and set in motion even greater changes than I think any president since FDR — and we see it today. George W. Bush may be his father's son but in so many ways he's really Ronald Reagan's political heir — not only the agenda he's pursuing: across-the-board tax cuts — and a missile defense system — but how he's pursuing it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you agree, Michael?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    Yes and sometimes you see the political effect of a leader more on his opponents. Bill Clinton in 1996 said the era of big government is over. That was a concession to the fact that Ronald Reagan had changed the American mind by saying no longer am I going to be in the rubric of Lyndon Johnson who essentially said let's centralize power in Washington and make government as strong as possible.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, Haynes, you wrote extensively about social programs and all of that during the Reagan administration. What you would say to Richard's point?

  • HAYNES JOHNSON:

    Well, he certainly made a difference on the domestic scene; there's no question about that. He changed the role of government , depreciated the role of public service, the way money was spent and how it was spent and allocated, but there was something more about Reagan than anything we have talked about the policies and that was the picture of man. This was a towering figure. He's not on Mount Rushmore yet. He has got the airport — he's got the biggest government building ever in history next to the Pentagon named Ronald Reagan downtown Washington and so the monuments are there, but this was a guy — it's jaunting. He made the country feel good. We've gone through assassinations — Watergate — all of these things — the hostage crisis. Reagan — you can make fun of him and say he was a grade-B Hollywood actor but he actually had a sense of an imprint on the public; that's leadership.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And thank you all very much.

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