WASHINGTON -- Had he lived just a few years longer, Ronald Reagan would have turned 100 this Sunday. In his memory, the nation will honor his mark on history -- and debate his legacy.
His widow, Nancy Reagan, will lay a wreath at the Reagan library in California, where the 40th president was buried when he died in 2004 at the age of 93. A group of F-18s from the USS Ronald Reagan will salute him from the air.
In Washington, the city where he made his greatest impact, politicians will salute his tenure. One of them is President Barack Obama, who, though a liberal who yearns to undo much of Reagan’s domestic record, admires the way Reagan changed the course of history.
“No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan, and I certainly had my share, there is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America,” Obama said in a recent essay for USA Today.
To assess Reagan’s legacy at the centennial of his birth, McClatchy Newspapers spoke with three people who have widely different perspectives: one who ran against Reagan’s re-election and opposed much of his agenda, one who’s his political disciple striving to enshrine him in monuments, and one a historian whose early criticism has evolved into high respect.
They all salute him. They differ, however, over his legacy on war, taxes and government.
The former senator from Minnesota and vice president under Jimmy Carter was the Democratic presidential nominee who ran against Reagan in 1984. Mondale debated Reagan twice, and went on to lose 49 states.
Mondale’s first Reagan memory is of an upbeat rival whose optimism marked their clash of ideas as well as his politics.
“He is remembered as a very positive, hopeful public leader who helped fill that need at a tough time in American history, and I give him credit,” Mondale said. “In our campaigns, he never got mean, he never got bitter, he never got personal.”
A fierce opponent of Reagan’s arms buildup against the Soviet Union, Mondale said he still regretted that Reagan wouldn’t negotiate an arms treaty with the Soviets during his first term. Mondale said that Reagan relied too much on the thought that the Soviets couldn’t be trusted and the hope for a missile defense shield in space that would protect all Americans from any missile strike.
“After the campaign, and I pounded him on it, Nancy pressed him to try to find a negotiated agreement,” Mondale said. “He changed. I would give him credit for changing.”
Though many liberals portrayed Reagan as a warmonger at the time, Mondale credits him with restraint in the use of force, noting that he sent U.S. forces into battle rarely, including to the Caribbean island of Grenada and to Lebanon.
“His bark was bigger than his bite, which looks good now,” Mondale said. “He was actually pretty careful. ... I would give him a fairly good grade.”
Domestically, Mondale said, Reagan’s legacy is “much more problematic.”
He said Reagan helped turn the American people against the federal government and cut taxes so much that the resulting budget deficits forced reductions in needed government spending.
“The Republicans, teeing off Reagan, cannot bring themselves to raise taxes on the rich. They’re addicted to cutting taxes on the rich,” he said. “Beginning with Reagan, we’ve become two Americas, with a thin veneer of the wealthiest becoming ever richer and middle class shrinking.”
As a young conservative activist in 1985, Norquist founded the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform to help lay the groundwork for Reagan’s proposal to eliminate loopholes and lower tax rates. Today, he still heads that group, and chairs the Reagan Legacy Project, which has worked to honor the late president by putting his name on places from the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the sprawling Reagan federal building to the Ronald Reagan Lounge in John O’Farrell’s Pub in Ballyporeen, Ireland.
Norquist measures Reagan’s impact three ways: on the federal government, on the Cold War and on the conservative movement and Republican Party.
“It’s tough to remember how bad things were in the late ‘70s: waiting in line for gasoline, inflation,” Norquist said.
“Reagan came in and reduced the top marginal tax rates from 70 to 28 percent. He ushered in a lot of deregulation of business, of airlines, of trucking, some of which started under Carter,” he said.
Reagan also changed the politics of budgets and taxes -- and opened the door to record deficits. Dick Cheney later would be quoted as saying that “Reagan taught us deficits don’t matter,” a proposition that mainstream economists and tea party activists alike reject. Still, Reagan shifted the politics of taxes so much that politicians raise taxes at their peril.
Norquist argues that Reagan’s triumph in bringing the U.S. to the brink of victory in the Cold War -- the Soviet Union collapsed on the watch of his successor, George H.W. Bush -- was a greater victory than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in World War II.
“It’s a much bigger win. He wins the Cold War with half of the American establishment against him. And he does so without a lot of blood on the floor and no significant loss of life,” Norquist said. Less adoring analysts give at least equal credit to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of the book “The Age of Reagan.” He wrote there that while he was sometimes critical of Reagan’s leadership, after deep study of his record, “my views have ripened over time.”
In an interview, Wilentz said Reagan was the most important political figure of the last 30 years.
He includes him in august company.
“In American political history, there have been a few leading figures ... who for better or worse have put their political stamp indelibly on their time,” Wilentz wrote in his book. “They include Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt -- and Ronald Reagan.”
In the interview, Wilentz explained the basis of that judgment.
“Given when he came into office, where America had been and where America has gone, there is no more imposing political legacy,” he said. “He moved not only the ideology of government, but in his own unique way, he did his job extremely well.”
Reagan also left a lasting mark on the judiciary, Wilentz said.
While Reagan didn’t get conservative nominee Robert Bork onto the Supreme Court, he did put Antonin Scalia there. And he made hundreds of appointments to lower federal courts.
“He began a judicial revolution, which has shifted it well to the right,” Wilentz said. “That may be his longest-lasting legacy.”
Finally, Wilentz said, Reagan had qualities of leadership that helped him navigate changing conditions in the Cold War.
“He was very conservative, but also very pragmatic,” he said.
“One of the cores of Ronald Reagan’s politics was anti-communism and fighting the Soviet Union. I can’t imagine Reagan without that,” he said.
Already fearful of nuclear war, Reagan found a Soviet leader he could work with when Gorbachev took power. “Reagan understood that Gorbachev was for real,” Wilentz said. “He and Gorbachev brought the world to the end of the Cold War.”
As Republicans prepare to launch their campaign for the 2012 presidential nomination -- the first debate will be this spring at the Reagan library -- candidates will seek the mantle of Reagan.
But to Wilentz, it’s unclear where Reagan would fit in today’s landscape:
“In some ways, Ronald Reagan changed the world so much that you can’t have another Ronald Reagan.”