Ronald Reagan's FDR side: What today's conservatives -- and liberals -- get wrong about the Gipper

He knew politics' purpose is to govern, not preserve ideological purity. He pursued Goldwater ends with FDR means

Published May 16, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Ron Edmonds)
(AP/Ron Edmonds)

Excerpted from "Reagan: The Life"

Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Lech Wałesa arrived from abroad. Tony  Blair, Thatcher’s successor, represented the British government. Secretary-General Kofi Annan brought condolences from the United Nations.

President George W. Bush delivered the principal eulogy. “Ronald Reagan believed in the power of truth in the conduct of world affairs,” Bush said. “When he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name. There were no doubters in the prisons and gulags where dissidents spread the news, tapping to each other what the American president had dared to say. There were no doubters in the shipyards and churches and secret labor meetings where brave men and women began to hear the creaking and rumbling of a collapsing empire. And there were no doubters among those who swung hammers at the hated wall that the first and hardest blow had been struck by President Ronald Reagan.”

At the end of the service Nancy and the children accompanied the casket to Andrews Air Force Base for the return west. Back in California they laid her husband and their father to rest on the hilltop beside his library. “He is home now; he is free,” Ron Reagan said. Patti Davis spoke of her father’s final affirmation of love for her mother. “When he opened his eyes, eyes that had not opened for many, many days, and looked at my mother,” she said, “he showed us that neither disease nor death can conquer love.”


“In his last years he saw through a glass darkly; now he sees his savior face to face,” George Bush had said at the Washington service. “And we look for that fine day when we will see him again, all weariness gone, clear of mind, strong and sure and smiling again, and the sorrow of this parting gone forever.”

Bush was speaking of the hereafter, but an approximation arrived in 2011, on what would have been Reagan’s hundredth birthday—or, by the reckoning he liked to employ, the sixty-first anniversary of his thirty-ninth birthday. The tears had dried; the darkness of his last decade had lifted; the time that had passed since his departure from office allowed a clearer view of what his life and his presidency meant.

The celebrations were less restrained than at the moment of his passing. Reagan had become sufficiently iconic that civic and corporate groups could safely attach themselves to his memory without fear of alienating clients or customers. The Tournament of  Roses included  a Reagan-themed float in its annual parade in Pasadena. The  National Football League hailed the Gipper in a video aired just before kickoff at the Super Bowl. A similar tribute played before the Daytona 500 car race. The Professional Golfers’ Association tipped its cap to Reagan. The U.S. Postal Service issued a Reagan stamp. A measure was introduced in Congress to put Reagan’s image on the $50 bill. Initiatives were launched to name something for Reagan in every county in the country.

In a more analytical vein were the symposia and conferences that weighed his achievements and measured his contribution to the landmark events of his time. None of the participants could deny that America and the world had changed dramatically during the Reagan era. The nation’s politics took a sharp turn to the right; after a half century of liberalism, Americans rediscovered the virtues of conservatism. The international order was transformed by the collapse of Soviet communism; the end of the Cold War completed what American presidents had been attempting since 1945.

From the vantage of the Reagan centennial, with the twentieth century receding into the past, it wasn’t unreasonable to measure Reagan against his political hero, Franklin Roosevelt. And by that measure, he fared quite well. What Roosevelt had been to the first half of the twentieth century, Reagan was to the second half. Roosevelt entered office amid a crisis of the private sector, when the conservative status quo had lost legitimacy. Roosevelt tipped the balance to the left, launching the age of liberalism in American politics. In foreign affairs he asserted America’s world leadership and defeated the first of the century’s two modes of totalitarianism, fascism. Reagan entered office amid a crisis of the public sector, when the liberal status quo was floundering. Reagan tipped the balance back to the right, reviving conservatism as the more credible force in American politics. In foreign affairs he confirmed America’s  world leadership and set the century’s second form of totalitarianism, communism, on the path to extinction.

An additional parallel appeared in the fact that while the magnitude of the accomplishments of the two presidents was impossible to deny, the meaning of those accomplishments continued to provoke vigorous debate. The New Deal was the salvation of democracy, in the minds of Roosevelt’s  liberal supporters, and the onset of socialism, to his conservative critics. The Reagan revolution was the restoration of freedom, in the view of Reagan’s conservative admirers, and the abandonment of the weak and vulnerable, to his liberal opponents.

In certain respects, Reagan’s accomplishment was greater than Roosevelt’s. During the formative stages of the New Deal, Roosevelt enjoyed rubber-stamp majorities in Congress. After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt as commander in chief met almost no resistance as he redesigned American foreign policy. Reagan, by contrast, had to struggle with a Democratic House during his entire presidency and with a Democratic Senate during his last two years. Nothing in international affairs gave him anything like the carte blanche in foreign policy enjoyed by Roosevelt.

The  key to Reagan’s success, like that  to Roosevelt’s, was his ability to restore Americans’ faith in their country. Reagan was called the “great communicator” with reason. He was the most persuasive political speaker since Roosevelt, combining conviction, focus, and humor in a manner none of his contemporaries could approach. Reagan’s critics often dismissed the role of conviction in his persuasiveness; they attributed his speaking skill to his training as an actor. But this was exactly wrong. Reagan wasn’t acting when he spoke; his rhetorical power rested on his wholehearted belief in all the wonderful things he said about the United States and the American people, about their brave past and their brilliant future. He believed what Americans have always wanted to believe about their country, and he made them believe it too.

It helped that his beliefs relentlessly flattered the American people. Reagan blamed the country’s  problems not on the people but on their government, as though the government—in a democracy, of all systems— existed apart from the people. His message was an easy sell. He asked next to nothing of the people, neither the soaring sacrifice of John Kennedy’s inaugural nor the quotidian adjustments sought by Carter. He promised Americans the gift of tax cuts, which he delivered without insisting on conservatism’s traditional precondition, spending cuts.

Reagan’s focus was no less important than his conviction. Focus is often the inverse of expertise, and Reagan understood that at the highest levels focus is far more important. He refused to clutter his mind with details that might distract from his major goals. From the start of his political career to the finish, his major goals were always the same: to shrink government at home and defeat communism abroad. Everything else was secondary. Reagan communicated effectively not least because he gave essentially the same speech again and again. The particulars and the anecdotes varied, but the message never did.

Yet the anecdotes were crucial. Reagan told stories and jokes better than any president since Lincoln. He understood the disarming power of humor: that getting an audience to laugh with you is halfway to getting them to agree with you. He was not a warm person, but he seemed to be, which in politics is more important. Many people loathed his policies, but almost no one disliked him. Democratic elections are, at their most basic level, popularity contests, and Reagan knew how to be popular.

Also vital to Reagan’s success was his ability to get other people to do his dirty work for him. He was accounted a terrible manager, unwilling to fire people, unable to keep track of what was being done in his name. If he had been the chief executive of a large corporation, these would have been damning failures. But in a president they can be essential to success. Whatever William Casey was up to in the months before the 1980 election, none of it touched Reagan. Reagan likely gave Casey no encouragement to stall the hostages’ release. But he didn’t have to. He knew what kind of person Casey was and what Casey was capable of doing.

In the matter of Iran-contra, Reagan understood full well the connection between the arms deliveries and the release of the hostages. His diary makes this quite clear. But he distanced himself from the details, leaving them to John Poindexter and Oliver North. Poindexter didn’t inform Reagan what North was doing, because every signal he got from Reagan told him the president didn’t want to know. By remaining in the dark, Reagan eventually managed to convince himself that the dealings were something other than arms for hostages. His outrage at the accusations of bargaining with terrorists was emotionally sincere, if logically incredible. As for the contra connection, Reagan didn’t know about the diversion of funds, again because he didn’t want to know. He set the moral tone of the administration, which placed the survival of the contras above nearly everything else, including the repeatedly legislated will of Congress. He left it to his subordinates to figure out how to keep the contras alive. He let Poindexter and North work out the details, and he let them take the fall when the scandal broke. Even if his memory hadn’t failed by the time the Walsh investigation got to him, there was little chance of his being prosecuted. There were no fingerprints and no smoking gun.

A related talent was Reagan’s ability to say one thing and do something else. In an individual this is hypocrisy; in a president it is realism. Reagan’s political philosophy was adamant conservatism. He valued freedom over equality, the individual over the group, the private sector over the public sphere. In every speech he gave, he preached the conservative gospel. But Reagan’s political practice was flexible pragmatism. He opposed abortion, but as California governor he relaxed the state’s abortion laws. He favored lower taxes, but he accepted tax increases when necessary to achieve the best bargain with Congress. He believed communism to be evil, but he forged an alliance with the leader of the most powerful communist country in the world.

Reagan’s pragmatism was a reflection of his ambition. Throughout his life and career he had constantly sought larger stages; when he reached the largest stage in American politics, the presidency, he sought the still larger stage of history. He wanted to make a mark, not merely to make a statement. He understood that the purpose of politics is to govern, not to preserve ideological purity. He pursued the ends of Barry Goldwater by the means of Franklin Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt and other successful presidents, he realized that progress comes in pieces. If he got four-fifths of his ask in a negotiation, he took it and ran. He knew he could return for the rest.

Reagan’s timing—some called it his luck—was no less essential to his success than his ability. In historical terms, his life and career couldn’t have been timed more effectively. The century after Reagan’s birth was an American era in world affairs. The United States came of age as Reagan came of age. He lived through World War I, with its false step toward American global leadership; he survived the Great Depression and experienced the annealing it afforded the American character. He went to Hollywood’s version of war as the United States went to war against Japan and Germany. He became aware of the communist threat in the film industry as America discovered the communist threat in the world at large. His political career blossomed as the struggle against communism matured, and his career culminated as the Cold War reached its climax.

Timing in human affairs is often a matter of coincidence, the overlapping of lives and moments. Reagan’s moment in power overlapped with the moments of two men who were crucial to his success. Paul Volcker was Jimmy Carter’s  gift to Reagan; it was Volcker who squeezed the inflationary expectations out of the economy and put it on the path to solid growth. And he did so at just the right time for Reagan. If Volcker had taken charge of the Fed two years earlier, the economy might have improved sufficiently that Carter and not Reagan would have been elected in 1980. If Volcker had arrived two years later, the recession that routed the Republicans in the 1982 elections could have swept Reagan from office in 1984.

In a similar way, Mikhail Gorbachev was Moscow’s gift to Reagan. Reagan had tried without success to engage Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko  in arms talks; only the emergence of Gorbachev provided him with a counterpart willing and able to negotiate seriously. Perhaps the demise of the Soviet Union was predestined; the system there had been broken for years. Yet the timing of the demise depended on someone willing to acknowledge the undeniable. Had  Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko collectively lived but a few years longer, Reagan would never have found his partner. To one of his successors would have gone the distinction of pushing the Soviet Union to the edge.

Presidential reputations, however, reflect what did happen, not what might have happened. Herbert Hoover might have been a great president if not for that nasty depression. In Reagan’s case, of the two goals he set for himself—shrinking government and defeating communism—he accomplished half of the first and all of the second. He cut taxes and regulations but failed to cut spending; the result was the economic recovery but also the doubling of the federal debt. He  defeated communism definitively, with the help of Gorbachev and George Bush. By the early 1990s communism was a dead letter in world affairs. The Communist Party still ran China, but it was communist in name only. Residual communist regimes in Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea didn’t matter to anyone except their own suffering people.


“I know in my heart that man is good,” Reagan had said at the dedication of his library. “That  what is right will always eventually triumph.” These lines of the Reagan creed were etched over his grave at the Reagan Library.

But the closing words of his poignant farewell to the American people were the ones that were better remembered, that captured the belief that made him irresistible to so many. The shadow of forgetfulness was growing long across his path, yet his optimism and faith in his country remained undiminished as he wrote, “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

Excerpted from "Reagan: The Life" by H.W. Brands. Published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, a Penguin Random House company. Copyright 2015 by H.W. Brands. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, All rights reserved. 

By H.W. Brands