The Reagan legacy

Despite mistakes, his popularity endures

MARCI McDONALD November 14 1988

The Reagan legacy

Despite mistakes, his popularity endures

MARCI McDONALD November 14 1988

The Reagan legacy



Despite mistakes, his popularity endures

In Berea—a Cleveland

suburb that calls itself the Grindstone Capital of America—the fading afternoon sun cast an elegiac light over the lineups jostling to get into Baldwin-Wallace College. Inside Upsprung gymnasium, banners fluttering from ceiling girders proclaimed “Thanks 4 the great 8: We love you,

Ron.” And hand-lettered placards waving above the flag-studded crowd pleaded “Four more years.” Onstage, even the familiar avuncular figure at the microphone was waxing nostalgic.

“You know, my time is drawing to a close in Washington,” Ronald Reagan told the hushed auditorium. “And come January, I’ll be going home.”

Then, vowing to “pass the torch” to Vice-President George Bush, Reagan redefined this week’s presidential election as a ratification of his eightyear reign—and he requested a personal favor. “Can I ask you one last thing?” he said. “Will you go out there and win this one for the Gipper?”

Screaming assent on the gym floor below, Jim Trakas, a 23-year-old who had just graduated from Ohio State University, voiced a longing that has echoed through rallies—and public opinion polls—across the country: he said he wished that Reagan was once more on this year’s ballot. “When he came up there, I had tears in my eyes, ’’said Trakas. “He embodies everything that America stands for. ”At a time when pollsters report that a

majority of voters are unhappy with -

their current choice of candidates—and 82 per cent of those who voted for Reagan say that they would do so again—Trakas’s sentiment is a measure of the force that Reagan continues to exert over the American political landscape. In fact, analysts say that his personal popularity and record were among the most significant factors aiding Bush in his race for the Oval Office. Said William Schneider of Washington’s nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute: “There have really been three people on the ticket: Bush, [vice-presidential nominee Dan] Quayle—and Reagan.”

But Reagan’s legacy is contradictory. Once caricatured as a Hollywood cowboy who acquired his political philosophy from his struggles to prevent alleged Communists from taking over the Screen Actors Guild, he

rode into the White House in 1981 on promises to cut taxes, reduce inflation, restore the country’s military might—and make Americans feel better about themselves. And he accomplished many of his goals. Eight years later, inflation has plummeted to 4.4 per cent from 13.5 per cent, while unemployment was 5.3 per cent last month compared with a high

To Berea’s young people—members of a generation that has increased its national membership in the Republican party to a current 33 per cent from 20 per cent in 1980—those achievements are the main reason for rallying to the banner of the country’s oldest president ever, who will celebrate his 78th birthday 17 days after leaving office next Jan. 20. Said David Bowen, a 25-year-old bank executive: “My brother graduated from college at the end of the Carter administration and he was unemployed for three years. I graduated in the Reagan years and got a job right away. Reagan has turned the economy around.”

But his record has also been mixed. In presiding over the biggest peacetime defence buildup in the nation’s history—and over a

71-month uninterrupted period of growth, the longest since the Second World War—Reagan tripled the national deficit. In less than five years, he turned the United States into the number 1 debtor nation, owing more than $480 million, from the world’s number 1 creditor, owed $168 billion. And some economists predict a reduced standard of living for generations to come. Said Jeff Faux, president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute: “Reagan told us to stand tall in the saddle. Then he mortgaged the horse.”

Nor has the economic recovery been even. During Reagan’s two terms, the gap between rich and poor has widened, leaving a potentially unemployable underclass and more people in poverty—32.5 million in 1987 compared with 25.2 million in 1979. About 13 million of those classified as poor are children under age 6. While the richest 10 per cent of Americans

watched their income grow by 27.4 per cení over the past decade, the poorest 10 per cent saw their income drop by 10.5 per cent. And Reagan’s virtual dismantling of the country’s antitrust laws encouraged a wave of corporate takeovers that may have led, in part, to last year’s insider-trading scandals on Wall Street.

In foreign affairs, Reagan used some of the most inflammatory anti-Soviet rhetoric of any postwar president, including his famous “Evil Empire” remark. Then, in 1987, he concluded an intermediate-range nuclear forces agreement that most analysts say will rank as his administration’s crowning achievement. With an unprecedented amount of weapons spending, he restored the country’s military muscle, then unleashed it on two tiny, seemingly unworthy targets. American forces invaded Gre-

of 10.8 per cent in 1982.

nada in 1983, and the government secretly financed a surrogate guerrilla war against Nicaragua, which has a population of just 3.5 million. But those ventures reassured a nation still haunted by Vietnam and the 1979 humiliation of seeing its hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Moslem extremists. Said Bowen: “We ended up the laughingstock of the world. Now we’ve got our confidence back.”

In 1980, Reagan campaigned as an outsider who would get the government off the backs of the people, and in 1984—as president—he repeated that populist pledge.

But, in fact, what he repeatedly referred to as “big government” has grown even bigger. The federal civilian workforce increased between 1982 and 1987 by

about 150,000, growing to -

more than three million. Still, invoking “states’ rights”—a refrain used during the 1960s civilrights struggles to fight federally mandated integration—he unleashed an attack against minority civil-rights gains. His justice department challenged, with little success, dozens of affirmative-action decrees previously negotiated with city governments. And early this year, he vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act—a veto that Congress later overrode.

Many critics charged that his administration created a new climate in which racism became respectable. Mr. Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black on the Supreme Court, last year broke the traditional silence of his office to claim that Reagan ranked at “the bottom” among presidents on the subject of racial justice. And after appointing nearly half of all federal judges, he has given the country’s justice system a more conservative, noninterventionist character—perhaps his most enduring influence.

Even Reagan’s unparalleled personal appeal remains an enigma. A deluge of books by former aides have painted devastating portraits of his laziness, inattention to detail and lack of intellectual grasp of even some of his own policies. In the most damaging account, For the Record, former chief of staff Donald Regan portrays him as a passive, ceremonial figure, still an actor playing the role of president. Wrote Regan: “He regarded his daily schedule as being something like a shooting script in which characters came and went, scenes were rehearsed and acted out, and the plot was advanced one day at a time, and not always in sequence.” His staff learned that the only way to capture his attention was to play on his sentiments. According to Regan, when former CIA director William Casey wanted his agreement to sell arms to Iran in return for release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon,

Casey showed the president a harrowing film—sent by the kidnappers—of hostage William Buckley, a CIA agent, being tortured. Reagan’s emotional response led directly to the Iran-contra scandal that shook his presidency.

But even the proof that Reagan had lied to the nation about selling arms to Iran, which sent his personal approval rating down by 21 points, failed to permanently impair his popularity. His standing has now returned to its record high of 60 per cent. It remained unaffected by Regan’s revelation last May that the administration depended on the readings of San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley in deciding the timing of key events. Nor was Reagan’s appeal disturbed by the release in September of a videotape from a secret 1984 Republican campaign meeting in which his strategists joke repeatedly about the “old man’s” ineptitude. In fact, the tape reveals that Reagan might have promised action on acid rain four years ago. But speech writer Kenneth Khachigian reminded his colleagues that, in 1980, Reagan blamed acid rain on emissions from trees. Said Khachigian: “If you get the old man going on it, he does ‘killer trees.’ ”

Reagan fell asleep during an audi-

ence with the Pope, made a speech in

Brazil thanking the “people of Bolivia,” and once failed to recognize the only black member of his cabinet, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce, greeting him as “Mr. Mayor.” He has taken so many liberties with facts, including turning his own wartime

Stint doing voice-overs for Hollywood training films into “four years in uniform,” that they are chronicled in a book called Reagan ’s Reign of Error. But felled by a would-be assassin’s bullet in his first year in office, then faced with major surgery for bowel cancer three years ago, he showed inspirational courage and an unprecedented ability to reassure the nation. “No matter what Reagan did, you couldn’t help but like him,” said Nina Sussman, a Los Angeles actress-hairdresser. “He seemed so harmless—sort of like this big golden retriever.”

Reagan’s charisma remains so firmly intact that Bush’s managers had to combat what they call the “stature gap” largely by keeping him away from Reagan. And on his final swing through the West last week, Reagan reminded many observers of just how much the style, themes and language of this year’s campaign bear his influence. His tailored-for-television rallies, devised by media handlers such as thendeputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, served as the model for the current White House race. And Reagan’s presidency perfected the techniques of media manipulation that communications critic Mark Hertsgaard blames for the current negativity and lack of substantive debate on issues.

As Hertsgaard points out in a new book, On Bended Knee-. The Press and the Reagan Presidency, Deaver controlled the media by helping reporters do their jobs. He gave them a constant flow of visually engaging events that television reporters could not refuse, but that distracted them from pursuing critical story lines. Said Hertsgaard: “It was manipulation by inundation.” Other analysts note that, after eight years of applauding an actor as president, the public now judges candidates on their ability to read convention speeches from TelePrompTers and their likability. Said James David Barber, author of Presidential Character. “We’ve become a nation of drama critics.”

But Reagan has also changed the nature of the national debate. The optimism and patriotism of both Bush’s and Dukakis’s rhetoric were patterned on Reagan’s own market-tested formulas. Even Dukakis’s reluctance to embrace the “liberal” label that Reagan turned into an epithet demonstrated how the President has shifted the political centre of both parties to the right. Now it is rare for Democrats to talk of increasing social spending programs—in part because Reagan’s deficits have made that impossible. In fact, in his 1986 book, Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, former budget director David Stockman claimed that the secret agenda of Reagan’s supply-side economics was “to have a strategic deficit that would give you an argument for cutting back the programs that weren’t desired.”

But despite Reagan’s so-called revolution, he failed to forge a political realignment that would give Republicans control of Congress. He did, however, build a new political coalition of the affluent and the middle class—who most benefited from his tax cuts—and the religious

right, whose values he championed, at least in speeches. That coalition has solidified the party’s base in the Rocky Mountain states and the South and it has ensured the Republicans of an Electoral College base likely to give them a cushion in presidential elections for years to come. At the same time, Reagan’s attacks on organized labor—beginning with his 1981 firing of 11,345 striking federal air-traffic controllers—have helped push union membership down to 17.5 per cent of the workforce in 1986 from 23.8 per cent in 1980. And that has eroded the Democratic party’s traditional working-class base.

As Reagan prepares to ride off into the sunset, headed for the $ 3-million Los Angeles retirement estate bought for him by wealthy California supporters known as the Kitchen Cabinet, he says that he will not allow his ideas to fade from the limelight. Declared the President: “I have a hunch I’ll be right back there on the mashed-potato circuit, making my views known.” The Great Communicator may be leaving the White House, but it remains clear that his presence will long linger on the national stage.

MARCI McDONALD in Washington