Shaping Reagan's legacy


LOS ANGELES -- The 40th president of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, recently turned 88 years old, and a lot of the old gang gathered out in the Simi Valley here where his neo-Taco Bell library dominates a landscape of rolling and totally arid hills.

It is so easy to make fun of Mr. Reagan, the cowboy actor become cowboy president. I did it deliberately in these first sentences, as I used to do it regularly when he was in power. Attacking him was simple, wounding him difficult, forgetting him impossible.

This was a man with a legacy. This was a leader, even if I and millions of others did not want to follow him. We did not want to go in that direction, and I think we were right. So I was not part of the old gang, then or now. I was in the posse that never caught up with him and his gang.

James McGregor Burns, the historian who has had some success in defining leadership in our time, was in the posse, too. The two of us happened to be on a panel a few weeks ago, discussing that subject in the context of President Clinton and Mr. Burns' academic distinctions between "transitional" and "transformational" leadership.

There seemed to be consensus -- actually, almost unanimous consent -- that history would judge Mr. Clinton as a transitional leader. He was there when things happened, as opposed to making things happen, changing the times. That was followed by a round of lamentations about the death of leadership. Wait a minute, I said; how many of you think Mr. Reagan was a transforming leader? Almost every hand, most of them liberal hands, went up, including mine and Mr. Burns'.

The Simi Valley conference reunited 350 of the gang, including Howard Baker, Edwin Meese and Jeane Kirkpatrick. The president, ill with Alzheimer's disease, was represented by his wife, Nancy, and daughter Maureen.

It has been 10 years since Mr. Reagan left Washington, having made a revolution. He turned around the most genuine American political instinct, populism, persuading the nation that the exploiter of the little guy was not big business but big government. He sold the idea that whenever bad things happen to good people, it's their own fault. He engineered the secular deification of "the market," the triumph of economics over politics in the United States and then the world.

And, the folks on the hill added, he won the Cold War and crushed the communists. Some of us, looking up the hill, might mumble that the Cold War never would have been as long or as deep if it were not for simplistic commie-haters like Mr. Reagan. But the "war" was won on his watch.

They also saw tax-cutting as good politics and good social engineering, redistributing as much capital as they could from wastrel government and the lower classes to the paragons of the investing classes.

There were, of course, a few embarrassments and a touch of meanness and evil along the way -- secret wars, lying, some politically profitable class and race conflicts. But presidents are not paid by the hour, and they are remembered only for one or two big things.

Mr. Reagan, in fact, is still running the country. Mr. Clinton is governing in his shadow, trying, not without some real success, to create a liberal garden under the conservative oak. In the next wave of history, when Americans have forgotten some of his failings, Mr. Reagan will probably be classed as a "near-great" president. The old gang will love it.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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