The long shadow of Ronald Reagan

Tribune Staff Writer

Some presidents shrink after leaving office, and some grow in stature with each passing year. Ronald Reagan, born Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill., is one of the latter.

Underestimated at the beginning, controversial while in office, politically damaged and intellectually depleted by the time he departed, Reagan nonetheless created a legacy that continues to shape American government and politics into the 21st century. For better or worse, he is likely be remembered as the most important president since Franklin Roosevelt.

That's not to say that he succeeded at everything. His crusade to reduce the size of the federal government proved largely ineffectual -- a failure that, combined with his tax cut, produced a flood of budget deficits that would take years to ovecome. His grand "Star Wars" missile defense system was never built. The Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal mocked his claim to be tough on terrorism.

But Reagan's achievements were at least as large. His tax cut, deficits and all, did the valuable service of jettisoning punitive rates that had discouraged productive activity. His support of the Federal Reserve's painful campaign to end inflation helped lay the foundation for an era of sound money. His push to deregulate the economy unleashed a period of economic growth that, aside from one brief downturn in 1990-91, has gone on for nearly two decades.

His oratory on behalf of liberty and human rights -- most memorably when he went to West Berlin and urged, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" -- bore fruit in the stunning collapse of the Soviet Union and the wave of liberalization that swept over the planet in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Reagan's insistence on rebuilding the American military after the Vietnam debacle was a signal to everyone that we would stand firm against aggression. But the more telling blow to our enemies, large and small, was his unabashed celebration of the ideals on which America was founded.

Bill Clinton's two terms in office may be taken as evidence that Reaganism is dead. But the GOP has controlled Congress for the last six years. And Clinton succeeded in large part because he moved his party to the right to accommodate the shift brought about by Reagan. It was Clinton, after all, who declared, "The era of big government is over."

Trapped now in the brain-destroying prison of Alzheimer's, Reagan may no longer remember much of what he accomplished. But 90 years from now, it's safe to predict, Americans will not have forgotten.

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