It was the early 1980s and Ronald Reagan was under assault.
Yet instead of buckling Reagan wound up providing a classic case study in presidential leadership
As President Bush’s Iraq policy and his goal of victory comes under merciless attack from the non-believers, doubters, and skeptics in official and unofficial Establishment Washington, it is worth a look back at how Reagan led America to the land of lower taxes and great prosperity. It wasn’t easy.
While the subject was taxes, it could just as easily have been something else Reagan believed in because his leadership abilities were so frequently on display. But the tax example is particularly relevant today because in recounting this story I have turned for a refresher to With Reagan, the memoirs of Reagan aide and later Attorney General Edwin Meese, currently in the news as a member of the controversial Iraq Study Group.
Elected in a 44-state landslide over President Jimmy Carter, in no small part because of the Democrat’s abysmal handling of the economy that had saddled the nation with double-digit unemployment, interest rates, and inflation, Reagan vowed change. The change was the then “radical” doctrine of supply-side economics, a philosophy that correctly understood that low taxes were the key to a sound and thriving economy.
In retrospect the easiest part of implementing these changes was getting them passed through a Democrat-controlled House. (Republicans, on Reagan’s coattails, then ran the Senate.) The Reagan landslide had gotten the attention of the opposition, and there were in fact votes to be found for the President’s plan even in the belly of liberal Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill’s House. Working the phones relentlessly, aided by a boost in popularity owing to his conduct in a near-fatal assassination attempt, the President’s tax cuts passed.
Reagan proudly signed them into law in a fog-shrouded ceremony at his ranch on August 17, 1981. Then came the hard part.
Federal spending kept going, and the difficulties in roping it in became apparent to the Reagan team, as Ed Meese freely acknowledges. But what was particularly notable was a new discovery that Meese describes this way:
Related to this, on my part as well as on the President’s, was the assumption that everyone on the Reagan team had a similar view of the problems we faced and a similar commitment to solve them, whatever the difficulties. My approach was that we all knew what the President wanted and that our job was simply to go out and do it. But as later became apparent, various members of our team thought otherwise.
In other words, even as the President was suddenly fighting to keep his newly-enacted tax cuts from being upended before they had even kicked in, there were those within his own administration who tried to sabotage his efforts. How did this manifest itself in real terms? Reagan’s own Budget Director, David Stockman, again per Meese, “secretly decided we should give up on the Reagan program. His feelings were not expressed in cabinet meetings, but became abundantly plain as events unfolded. From a fairly early point, Stockman decided it was his mission, not to support Reagan’s tax reduction program, but to maneuver the President into backing away from it.”
Stockman wasn’t alone, either. He was but one member of the so-called “Baker group.” (Yes, of course, that would be Baker as in then White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, currently of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq study.) Another was Baker aide Richard Darman. Meese points to the book Gambling with History, an account of the early Reagan years by Time magazine’s Laurence Barrett, where confidential memoranda prepared by Stockman and Darman show conclusively that members of the President’s own senior staff had decided for themselves “that tax rate reductions would be calamitous for the economy and (began) setting to work surreptitiously to change the program.”
SO WHAT DID THE “Baker group” do? They had come to the conclusion, Meese says, that the President needed to be “educated” on the failure of his tax-cutting policy, a sentiment that is now rampant in Washington with regard to Bush and Iraq. But how does a White House staffer see to it that the President he is serving is undercut? How does Washington actually go about cutting a President down to size when he has the audacity to go against the (almost always wrong) conventional wisdom?
First, you try and isolate the President. Make as certain as you can that he — and everyone else — comes to believe he is the only person left who believes in his own policy. In the Reagan example this meant that Darman and Deputy White House Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, a key member of the Baker group, went out of their way to control the “human and documentary” traffic into the president. In Reagan’s case this meant that supply-side believers like Congressman Jack Kemp were denied access to Reagan. Instead, business leaders who favored a compromise on tax cuts were ushered into the President’s presence.
Then the media was brought into play, as this internal cabal fed stories to favored journalists who hungered for a way to grind their liberal axes against the Reagan Revolution. Stockman even gave lengthy interviews to liberal journalist William Greider for a story in the Atlantic, telling the only too-delighted Greider that “supply-side is just trickle-down” economics, the entire Reagan program nothing more than a “Trojan horse” to give tax breaks to the rich.
The cry was immediate among Reaganites on the staff for the President to fire Stockman. Graciously, he did not — but the only member of the senior staff to urge the President not to fire Stockman was…Jim Baker.
The fat was in the fire, however, and the idea of, again in Meese’s words, “government by leak” really took off. Washington was virtually inundated with stories that the President was the only one in his administration, not to mention Washington, who just didn’t understand reality. For example, there was a story in (where else?) the New York Times that said there was now a “full-scale battle” underway “for the soul of the Reagan administration and the mind of Ronald Reagan,” a battle designed to convince Reagan to give up on his tax cuts. Washington Post columnist Joseph Kraft reported that various members of the President’s own staff were trying to bring Reagan out of his “dream world.” Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak said the President had “to fight better than two-thirds of his economic team to save his program.”
Writes Meese of the media blitz by the president’s own people against their chief: “Daily stories filled the media, quoting various ‘aides,’ ‘senior officials,’ and ‘advisors to the President’ to the effect that he would have to change his course if the nation was to avert disaster.”
WHAT WAS REAGAN’S REACTION to all of this? He never flinched. Sometimes he used humor to deflect the criticism, repeatedly telling the story of the two boys who were an optimist and a pessimist. The pessimist, he said, was shown into a room piled high with toys, yet within minutes was in tears, having broken them all. The optimist is shown into a room filled with manure and joyfully starts digging. When asked why he’s so happy, the optimistic boy replies that with all this manure “there has to be a pony down here somewhere.” But behind the Reagan humor was the steel of real leadership. “No retreat,” he snapped on one occasion as he was being pressured for the umpteenth time by a staff member. “I will stand by my word,” he insisted on another occasion.
And he did. Believing that policy should drive process and not the reverse, Ronald Reagan successfully resisted all the nay-sayers in Congress, the media — and most importantly, his own administration. The results, as they say, are now history. Reagan was proved right. By 1983 the economy came roaring to life, as, more or less, it has remained to this day.
While this episode involved taxes, Reagan’s leadership qualities were repeatedly on display when dealing with issues that touched his core principles and beliefs. Again and again, whether it was tax cuts, the deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe, preserving the Strategic Defense Initiative or walking out of the Reykjavik Summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan simply ignored the deafening chorus of his critics. These are moments worth remembering now as the rubber meets the road on President Bush’s Iraq policy. As with Reagan, the media is filled with stories that have alleged presidential allies (and advisers to Bush 41) discussing the President they serve or nominally support with an eye rolling contempt. There is no small irony that many of these same people not only advised the Gerald Ford and Bush 41 presidencies to humiliating failure but tried — and failed — to do the same with Reagan, the latter simply refusing to listen to them. As with Reagan there is an attempt to have process (having the Baker-Hamilton group reach “consensus”) drive policy, heedless of whether the consensus is wrong, or worse, as the Iraqi president has quickly realized, “dangerous.”
At the end of all this is the realization of just what true presidential leadership demands: the ability to stick to core convictions on the most important issues of the day — and not retreat under the veritable hailstorm of criticism that follows. It is the one decided pattern that links the presidencies of those considered to be America’s best presidential leaders, from Lincoln to the Roosevelts, from Truman to Reagan.
RONALD REAGAN UNDERSTOOD WHAT it meant to be a real leader. He “got it,” and because he did his presidency, once written off by caustic critics of the day as a failure, is now rated as one of the greatest.
The fate of Iraq — and the future of both America and the West — is increasingly in the hands of one man, a man increasingly being isolated by the media and the Establishment in his belief that only victory will do. Alone like Reagan, one hopes that with his core convictions on the line George W. Bush will remember the trials of Ronald Reagan and the gritty positive attitude that epitomized Reagan’s leadership, a leadership that led to eventual — and spectacular — triumph in so many areas.
It’s worth remembering as well Reagan’s daring view about of the Cold War, a view that sent shudders through the Establishment of the 1980s. It is a view the Iraq Study Group apparently — if typically — refused to consider right from the start.
What was that view?
“We win, they lose.”
Exactly, Mr. President.