Tonight Ronald Reagan will speak before the Republican convention in Houston. You’d think the media would consider it a momentous event: a distinguished elder statesman addressing his party and the nation for the first time since leaving office. Don’t count on it.
Mr. Reagan’s long frustrated adversaries in oh-so-clever Washington have devoted much of the past four years to exorcising the former president’s spirit from inside the Beltway. Perhaps they even believe their spin that a real-life twin of Peter Sellers’s moronic leader in “Being There” defeated them in repeated elections and legislative confrontations, revived an economy in nervous exhaustion, and brought the Soviets down.
For the rest of us, tonight’s address is a good occasion for a reality check. As president, Mr. Reagan was sophisticated in ways his critics have yet to grasp. Today’s fashion is to dismiss him as merely an actor, but smooth delivery was the least of it. I remember watching him give a speech just as written, yet the meaning he conveyed was very different from the meaning I had put there. He had, in a sense, peered into my draft and teased out new dimensions, editing it without changing a syllable. Here, I thought, is an extraordinarily subtle intelligence.
Critics who talk about “the role of a lifetime” and “sleepwalking through history” lack the slightest grasp of why Mr. Reagan succeeded. The most significant aspect of his professional background was not that he had been an actor but that he had been a labor negotiator.
Mr. Reagan approached the presidency as a platform for negotiations (primarily with Congress and the Soviets). As former Attorney General Edwin Meese notes in his new memoirs (“With Reagan,” Regnery Gateway), Mr. Reagan “had a definite theory” about negotiating “and prided himself on his abilities.” He used public opinion as a bargaining lever. Speeches and appearances were devices for working this lever, as were the White House’s press office and its public liaison, public affairs and media affairs operations.
Time after time, in classic labor leader fashion, Mr. Reagan marshaled popular support, then held out to the last moment before coming to terms. And although during negotiations he would stand behind the curtain as much as possible (another classic parleying technique), he stepped forward when necessary to drive deals to a close (as with his moves just before passage of the ’81 tax act) or to jump-start stalled talks (as at Reykjavik).
Mr. Reagan was a voracious reader and an attentive listener. And the administration’s staff system forced extensive discussion of issues before they reached his desk. Every department and agency involved in a matter was included in the deliberations. By the time they went public on an issue, Mr. Reagan and his team had thought through where they would stand and why. The president devoted particular care to defining ultimate goals and moral underpinnings. He never gave the slightest hint that any position was “just politics.” He always appealed to a fundamental sense of justice, which made life easy for speech writers and hard for critics.
Detractors paint the Reagan administration as an unalloyed collection of likeminded ideologues. The truth is that Mr. Reagan united once antagonistic moderates and both Republican and Democrat conservatives into something like a coalition government. It was Mr. Reagan’s career-long practice to fuse rival traditions. In California, for example, Gov. Reagan brought together the free market views of Southern California Republicans with non-partisan, good government stands recalling such northern California progressives as Earl Warren. Judicial nominations were removed from patronage politics, as they were, to a large extent, once Mr. Reagan got to Washington. Ability mattered in making appointments far more than connections.
The ultimate fusing of traditions came when the president married anti-communism with the forms of anti-nuclear activism. Mr. Reagan’s arms reduction and elimination proposals foiled the Soviet gambit to turn European public opinion against new missile deployments and paralyze NATO. His Strategic Defense Initiative was disarmament through technology rather than diplomacy. It threatened to make the Soviet rocket force obsolete and, with the Soviet economy approaching collapse, helped break Moscow’s will. In a manner characteristic of his entire political life, Mr. Reagan turned stances that had been staples of the pro-Soviet left to anti-Soviet ends.
When the evil empire fell, oh-so-clever Washington said it showed that the accommodationists had been right all along. And it still insists that our longest peacetime economic expansion was a disaster. But the publics of the old communist bloc are said to adore Mr. Reagan above all world figures, excepting perhaps the Pope. And in the U.S., the former chief executive has received enthusiastic ovations of late when he has called for repeal of the two-term limit on presidents.
Washington may not get it. But tonight, as the rest of us watch and listen, we might remember how rare was the combination of gifts Ronald Reagan brought to the presidency. How blessed was the nation to have had him in office. And how acute his view has always been of our past, our present and our future.