Political Hay

The Blanding of Ronald Reagan

There's more to the 40th president than the kinder, gentler version even many conservatives portray.

By 7.6.11

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What a lovely, lovely man.

Never a pointed word. Always soothing. Just one big kumbaya lug of a president.

Can’t we all be as civil and wonderful and eternally non-radically sweet in our political dialogue as Ronald Reagan?

Um….excuse me.

Snap out of it!

For reasons that appear unfathomable other than the clamor from GOP consultants selling their how-to-attract-Independents-Minorities-and-The Women’s Vote sure-fire soap suds  -- and that would be for a pretty penny not to mention in vain -- a strange fate has befallen the former president.

Ronald Reagan has been bland-ed. By the Right.

The man Rush Limbaugh fondly refers to as "Ronaldus Maximus" is being recast by some Republicans as "Ronaldus Vanillus."

Like Washington in all those bronzed statues everywhere, like Lincoln sitting immortalized in the big chair in the big stone temple on the Mall, Ronald Reagan has been marbleized.

Right before the eyes of those who know better, not to mention all those miles of videotape, the 40th president has ceased to be a real person when cited by some Republicans. Stripped of his considerable real-life capacity for straight talk, his uncanny knack for zeroing in on exactly the heart of his opponent’s real message, complete with a pithy dispatching of modern liberalism and its practitioners -- the real Ronald Reagan has ceased to exist in the minds of those who lovingly summon his name at election time.  

There’s no other possible reason for former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, incredibly once a Reagan staffer himself, to set himself up for such a public fall with his own presidential announcement speech. Going to elaborate lengths to re-create the 1980 Reagan campaign kickoff against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, Huntsman did everything but, apparently, the obvious: go back and read what candidate Reagan actually said while he was standing there.

It took the redoubtable Rush Limbaugh exactly microseconds of air time that day to find an audio of Reagan delivering that very speech. The contrast between Huntsman solemnly preaching his promises of civility towards the incumbent while Reagan dispatched then-incumbent Jimmy Carter with a series of brisk verbal volleys was like night and day. It made the new candidate seem weak, confused and not the smart man his followers insist him to be.

But Huntsman certainly isn’t alone in purveying the image of a brand-new blanded Ronald Reagan.

Earlier this year, Mitt Romney took to the pages of USA Today to praise Reagan’s "legacy of optimism." He touches all the familiar bases of the Reagan record -- yet seems mysteriously unable to demonstrate in his own campaign the very quality that Reagan had in spades -- a fearless willingness to challenge the status quo.

Not long after this article, for example, Romney refused to take the Susan B. Anthony pledge on abortion. A refusal that in fact has nothing to do with abortion at all. The former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate explained himself at National Review Online using this reasoning:

As much as I share the goals of the Susan B. Anthony List, its well-meaning pledge is overly broad and would have unintended consequences. That is why I could not sign it. It is one thing to end federal funding for an organization like Planned Parenthood; it is entirely another to end all federal funding for thousands of hospitals across America. That is precisely what the pledge would demand and require of a president who signed it.

The pledge also unduly burdens a president’s ability to appoint the most qualified individuals to a broad array of key positions in the federal government. I would expect every one of my appointees to carry out my policies on abortion and every other issue, irrespective of their personal views.

The Romney statement is a perfect example of exactly what Ronald Reagan was not. The Reagan victories Romney cites in his USA Today article would never have come about if Reagan was sitting in the Oval office worrying about "unintended consequences."

While theoreticalli about his decision not to sign a pro-life pledge, Romney’s National Review statement reveals that his real concern is not about abortion but about upsetting the status quo. The status quo in this instance, as presented by Romney himself, having to do with federal funding for hospitals or appointing various pro-choice supporters to positions where issues of abortion would surface. In other words, finding one of a thousand reasons not to communicate a message that Romney advisers and presumably the candidate himself believe would show Romney as anything other than a cautious proponent of the status quo, too timid to do anything other than tinker at its edges.

In other words, Romney will bland Reagan in USA Today but put the Reagan boldness to work in his own campaign? Certainly not. There are those pesky unintended consequences, you see. It’s as if Romney simply chooses to pass over the hard reality that there were Establishment-types aplenty telling Reagan some version of the same thing when he chose to confront the Soviets and all the rest. Romney, in his own fashion like Huntsman, simply blands Ronald Reagan and goes back to his status quo campaign.

The story is told in Reagan circles of the new president sitting down with a new, senior member of his administration, a longtime member of the Washington Establishment, and being asked to do X. The new president considered the request a moment and balked. To which the longtime Establishment denizen replied: "But Mr. President, this is the way it has always been done." To which Reagan quickly smiled and sweetly replied: "Isn’t that why we’re here?"  Meaning, "the way things have always been done" -- the status quo -- was precisely the thinking that had gotten the country in trouble in the first place. The president refused the request.

The unsettling core of the problem conservatives have with a Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman is in fact really not about either. The heart of the issue is that conservatives are in search of someone who, like Ronald Reagan, is completely fearless in looking at problems and suggesting solutions that embody the conservative message. Someone who understands in his or her bones the inertial force the federal government has become. And has the courage to both take it on and defeat it.

This -- aside from his well thought-out understanding of conservative principles as expressed in hundreds of pre-presidential speeches, columns and radio talks -- is exactly why Ronald Reagan has emerged as a great American president.

Examples are easy to come by. Not to get too wicked, but let’s posit how a President Romney or President Huntsman would have responded based on their campaigns and records thus far.

The only morality they (the Soviet Union) recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat.

This Reagan remark was made at his very first press conference as president, only days after being sworn in. The status quo Establishment -- as expressed through the liberal media and bureaucracy of the day -- gasped in disbelief. Outgoing CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, appalled, gave expression to that disbelief in taking Reagan to task for assuming a "hard line toward the Soviet Union" and having “overdone the rhetoric a little bit in laying into the Soviet leadership as being liars and thieves, et cetera."

Reagan, famously, refused to back down.Worse, he would later go well beyond the Establishment pale by labeling the Soviet Union....gasp!...an "Evil Empire." The entire Establishment almost passed out in unison - while word filtered to jailed Soviet dissidents, making Reagan a hero. A hero who is being honored by now-freed Soviet satellites as this is written. As seen here, with a story from Hungary where a statue to Reagan has been erected and dedicated in the last few days - not so coincidentally in synch with the American Fourth of July holiday period.

What would President Romney have done? What would President Huntsman have done?

In looking at the records of candidates who frequently appear to be presenting themselves as representatives of the Establishment status quo, one is led to believe these words would never in a thousand years have escaped from their mouths, particularly at a televised presidential press conference. Like Gerald Ford, who saw Reagan as "simplistic", or George H.W.Bush, who, as Angelo Codevilla noted in The Ruling Class is said to have dismissed Reagan (to Gorbachev!)  as "an extreme conservative," so too Romney and Huntsman would have quivered and written Reagan off. 

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall

Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson has often told the backstage story of this now famous challenge to Gorbachev. Time after time, the phrase was yanked from drafts of the Reagan speech to be delivered at the Brandenburg Gate, with the diplomatic suits of the State Department and others of Establishment mindset doing the yanking. Finally, Reagan had enough. Said he as his limousine approached the Berlin Wall on that fateful day, according to his chief of staff who was in the car:

The boys at State are going to kill me. But it's the right thing to do.

One has a hard time believing a President Romney or President Huntsman would have had the courage or imagination to so bluntly overrule "the boys at State"-- the Establishment mandarins who populate the Washington foreign policy establishment. By all appearances Huntsman, making much of his diplomatic experience, seems to be exactly one of “the boys at State” whom Reagan made a point of not listening to. Romney surely would have been afraid of all those "unintended consequences."

But don’t believe for a second that this kind of attitude -- celebrating a sanitized Ronald Reagan while quietly signaling any kind of reason to oppose operating with Reaganesque boldness -- is not some problem peculiar to Romney or Huntsman. This problem surfaces throughout the larger GOP tent.

A case in point was a pair of columns a few weeks back that illustrated the Reagan-blanding problem precisely. 

On the surface the subject at hand in the debate between National Review’s Andrew McCarthy and Commentary’s Pete Wehner was Medicare. But in reality, Mr. McCarthy, in one of the finer pieces of Reagan-esque analysis written anywhere in a long time, captures precisely the bold leadership style that was quintessentially Reagan. Just as Reagan refused to get caught up in the machinations of arms control minutia that was typical of the status quo and its devotees -- instead focusing on the core moral bankruptcy of Communism and the existing Soviet Union -- McCarthy zeroes in on the heart of the problem with Medicare. It is, in fact, broke and going more so, he correctly notes.

Wehner, in a vivid illustration of the status quo mindset designed as a paean to Burke, says this:

 What is needed by conservatives is a Burkean sensibility, a cast of mind that prefers realistic reforms to radical and jarring changes.

This, of course, is not even close to the way Reagan viewed the world. It is the very essence of how the Establishment wing of the GOP -- who couldn’t stand Reagan when he was challenging Gerald Ford or taking on George H.W. Bush -- is cautiously working at the task of blanding  Ronald Reagan.

As his national security advisor Richard Allen related, Reagan’s boldness and imagination stood out in an early discussion with Allen on the Cold War. Said Reagan:

My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose. What do you think of that?

If one was conscious politically in any fashion in the day, this kind of thinking was greeted with precisely the kind of reaction Wehner displays in his response to McCarthy -- exactly the sentiment exhibited now by Romney and Huntsman. Reagan was inundated with outrage by his policies towards the Soviets, repeatedly refusing to give in on what he saw as moral and strategic timidity. His critics were adamant that the way to deal with the Soviets was to be "realistic" -- no jarring changes or believers in same needed.

Which gets straight to the point as exhibited in the mindset displayed by a Romney or a Huntsman or a Wehner and heavens knows others (loudly if not plentifully).

Ronald Reagan believed in a Republican Party that was, as he famously said, of "bold colors" and not "pale pastels."

Quite beyond his belief in conservative principle, Reagan repeatedly -- over and over and over again -- presented himself as the champion of a message. A theme. While his critics spent their time being furious, nattering on and on about this detail or that, Ronald Reagan was making conservatism the message. It was his job to steer the ship of state, and he was going to make relentlessly certain that while he had the job of president he communicated that message   

Sure, as Wehner says, he would grumble sometimes about this or that conservative who wanted to go off a cliff with flags flying on issue A or B. But these were not disagreements over message, theme or direction. These were tactical differences, the small potatoes of government.

Reagan stood in stark contrast to those for whom small potatoes were the stuff of government itself. He was unafraid to challenge those who simply could not imagine a world in which complicated arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union did not exist. Those who could not envision a world in which the Berlin Wall simply – gasp! – ceased to exist.

Yet what’s happened now is that the Romneys, the Huntsmans, the Wehners are among a crowd celebrating a man who  might be called "Ronald Reagan: The Revised Standard Edition."

This is a new, post-Reagan Reagan. A man who was always exhibiting, as Wehner fancifully imagines "a cast of mind that prefers realistic reforms to radical and jarring changes." This is a Reagan who surely must have spent his time discussing access routes through the Berlin Wall, not visibly demanding its destruction. This is a Reagan who would never have uttered such a wildly radical thought about the Cold War as "we win, they lose" but who just must have really understood just how simplistic these beliefs were.   

The results of this revisionism?

The newly-blanded Ronald Reagan. A man who so feared charges of incivility that he never took on Jimmy Carter by saying things like: "the Carter record is a litany of despair, of broken promises, of sacred trusts abandoned and forgotten."

This new blanded Ronald Reagan man would simply have been too polite to say:  

Let it show on the record that when the American people cried out for economic help, Jimmy Carter took refuge behind a dictionary.  Well if it’s a definition he wants, I’ll give him one. A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.

Or too polite to say of Carter:

Let him go to the unemployment lines and lecture those workers who have been betrayed on what is the proper definition for their widespread economic misery…. Call this human tragedy, whatever you want. Whatever it is, it is Jimmy Carter’s. He caused it. He tolerates it. And he is going to answer to the American people for it.

The man you see here in these video clips delivering a blistering critique of Carter with the Statue of Liberty in the background simply never existed. The man you see here in the act of overruling the State Department bureaucracy and bluntly demanding Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall?

That man, that Ronald Reagan, didn’t exist. Forget what you just saw.

Even Karl Rove seems to have blanded Ronald Reagan, writing recently that whomever emerges as the Republican nominee must deal carefully in going after President Obama. Says Rove:

 The GOP candidate must express disappointment and regret, not disgust and anger, especially in the debates. Ronald Reagan's cheery retorts to Jimmy Carter's often-petty attacks are a good model.

The truth?

The Ronald Reagan who opened his campaign against a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty had not the slightest hesitation in expressing his “disgust and anger” at the incumbent president. Why? Because he was disgusted and angry -- absolutely indignant -- at the inevitable incompetence and ignorance of liberalism set loose upon the American people.  Liberalism producing then as now the all too inevitable results.

Can Ronald Reagan be successfully blanded?

Made to appear as something he never was and certainly, in his lifetime, fought tooth and nail?

Can he be made into Ronaldus Vanillus?

Clearly, the fight is on.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.