WASHINGTON — The Old Cowboy is gone. The oldest man ever to be elected president lived on to be the oldest ex-president, and we who were his friends and allies have lived on to hear him praised in the media’s eulogies for his achievements and even for his intelligence. That last item would have amused him. Though he entered the White House an accomplished writer (the recently published Reagan: A Life in Letters makes that clear), a fairly erudite reader of history, philosophy, and economics, as well as a companion to such luminaries as Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley; his liberal antagonists through all eight years of his enormously successful presidency remained adamant: Ronald Reagan was a dolt. Do not despair George W!
From when I first broke bread with him as a college student working on his tentative 1968 presidential campaign, to my last melancholy goodbye in his California offices in the 1990s, he grew to be the American conservative movement’s first president and one of the twentieth century’s two greatest presidents. A great president changes national policy either in the domestic sphere or in the foreign policy sphere. As with Franklin Roosevelt, President Reagan changed national policy in both spheres, bringing an end to the Cold War and, at home, a prosperity that still endures. Now friends and erstwhile critics alike are acknowledging that he achieved all this through noble character and intellect. The Old Cowboy was a great gentleman.
When first we met in 1968 his political advisers were testing the waters for a presidential run, and I was asked to gather some pretty girls from the Indiana University campus to greet him at the Indianapolis airport. That was a political task worth undertaking. The day ended with dinner at a local hotel. The California Governor was surrounded by aides and Republican dignitaries with whom he was at ease, but he came over to our table too. Governor Reagan was as at ease with awkward students as he was with adults. He wanted to express his gratitude to us. He did it with warmth, not the trashy personal exuberance of present-day politics. He did not need to look into our eyes and act like an adolescent to leave a mark. Even in 1968 he radiated something special, a touch of class.
He was also a political genius. He had a gift that only the great politicians have. Yes, he was eloquent. To be sure he could work a crowd. Still that is not the stuff of political genius. He had convictions and the courage to stand alone on behalf of those convictions. He would through the years steadily coax his party and his nation towards those convictions, but those are only the marks of a great statesman, not of a political genius. What marked him as a political genius was the gift of timing. “Do not rush wildly at things” the Renaissance statesman, historian, and philosopher Guicciardini advised in the sixteenth century while chronicling King Ferdinand V of Aragon’s political genius, “do not precipitate them, wait for them to mature in their own season.” Before the Reagan presidency three supposedly gifted pols “rushed wildly at things.” Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter all attempted grand things and all came to ruin.
Drawing from the principles and policies of a conservative movement that had been gestating since World War II, President Reagan relied on his instinctive political timing to revive the economy, pressure the Soviets around the world, and, with a massive military build-up, bankrupt them. Even in today’s eulogies the eulogists sniff that he left the economy with a huge deficit. They remain ignorant of growth economics. The Reagan administration left office with a vigorous economy growing so robustly that the deficit was a shrinking percentage of GNP that in time would vanish. The conservative movement’s first President was also the first supply-side President.
President Reagan liked writers. During his presidency he would call some of us from time to comment on our columns and to get ideas from outside the White House. Once, during one of the occasional periods when he was being accused of losing touch with his conservative base, he called me at my Indiana office. He insisted he was on course and when I suggested he call in some conservative writers to exchange ideas he gave me the task of gathering them. We met in the cabinet room with editors from Commentary, National Review, and Policy Review. The Old Cowboy held his own and told his aides he wanted more of these egghead soirees. I did my best to keep him in touch with writers and ideas and he always enjoyed the discussions, especially on economics.
My most memorable salon with him came in July of 1988 when he dined at my home with a dozen writers. Standing at my door in the pouring rain with security helicopters overhead, a couple hundred security men in and around the house, and his personal bartender at work in the kitchen, he said, “Bob I’m sorry for all of this.” That night he told us of the religious impulse he thought he had espied in Russia and in Mikhail Gorbachev. Some at the table thought him naïve, but he thought he had worked things out with the Soviets. Midst the eulogies we often ignore how often he was so alone in his perceptions even from other conservatives and how often in his isolation he was the only one who was right.
Leaving office after years of economic growth and with American security ensured, the fortieth President of the United States was still abominated by his insensate critics. Columnist James Reston catalogued the imperfections: “Reagan’s easy optimism, his amiable incompetence, his tolerance of dubs and sleaze, his cronyism, his preoccupation with stars, his indifference to facts and convenient forgetfulness.” There you have it, Ronald Reagan, the Warren G. Harding of his day. In death the estimates have softened, but not completely. On MSNBC historian Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that Reagan established an intense connection with the American people thanks to television. Some earlier presidents have established it too. She mentioned Harding, who I assume did it without television. Professor Goodwin, an admitted plagiarist, overlooked policy and ignored character.
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