100 Years of Ronald Reagan: Author Steven Hayward on his legacy

Feb 07, 2011

Join author Steven Hayward on Monday Feb. 7, at 11 a.m., as he discusses the legacy of 40th President Ronald Reagan. Ask your questions now.

Would Ronald Reagan be nominated in today's GOP? He was more of a pragmatist back in the 80s, and I believe would cringe with some in the GOP striving for purity, instead of the big tent party that he talked about

It is forgotten now but the GOP establishment in 1980 did not favor Reagan, and considered him too extreme to win.  They'd have nominated anyone but Reagan if it had been done in the "smoke filled room" of the old days.  The irony is that the GOP is now a Reaganite party.  I think he'd easily be nominated today; after all, John McCain won the GOP nomination convincingly last time around, despite conservative and grassroots dislike of him.

Ronald Reagan was a good actor, and a great communicator as President. Thus, some think much of his Presidency composed a lot of his reading speeches like cue cards and not being very involved in deciding what it was he was reading. How is your reaction to that accusation?

One of the main revelations of the last 15 years, with the opening of private papers, meeting transcripts, and other behind-the-scenes documents is that Reagan was more involved than we thought, and took a very active role especially in writing his speeches.  Many of his most famous passages he wrote himself; in many cases, very long passages.  He also tended to write his own talking points for his summits with Soviet officials, and disregarded the State Department briefing books.

I'm 63, and remember well my HS civics teacher being very disapproving of Eleanor Roosevelt, saying she was always telling everyone how to raise her children even though all of hers had been divorced and generally made messes of their lives. I thought of this during the Reagan Administration, when "family values" were supposed to be paramount, but he and Nancy were at some point estranged from all 4 of their children. One, OK, maybe even 2, but all 4? That to be spoke reams about his qualities as a person. I actually voted for him twice, but both were votes against his opponent, rather than for him.

I think that's too strong a judgment.  Reagan was never estranged from Maureen, for example.  But on the larger point, it has to be difficult to be the child of very famous people.  Dysfunctional families are the rule rather than the exception.  You mention FDR's family, but it is also true of Winston Churchill's family to a large extent.  Richard Nixon's two daughters have not been on speaking terms with each other for years,the result of a feud over their father's library.  It is always a bit sad and disheartening, but not surprising.  At one point in the 1980s, an exasperated Nancy Reagan told Bill Buckley, "I love my children, but sometimes I don't like them."

When Morris finished his official biography of Reagan, Dutch, many thought that he really missed capturing what Reagan was really like, despite having unlimited access for hundreds of hours. What do you think? And what book do you think is the best overall book of Reagan or the Reagan years?

I'm not a fan of the Morris book, and Micheal Deaver told me when I interviewed him that selecting Morris was the second-biggest mistake he ever made for Reagan.  (Number one was the Bitburg cemetery visit in 1985.)  I have a number of theories about why Morris went off the rails, despite enormous writing talent and great perceptive powers, btu they take a while to explain.  I think the best books about Reagan (aside from my own, but I'm obviously biased) are Lou Cannon's especially his last one (whose exact title I forget), an almost complete bio that takes Reagan from childhood through the governorship to the White House.

I remember Reagan as a mean spirited president who dumped on the poor to make the rich richer.I think the Reagan legacy proves the power of revisionist history. I don't think his legacy would be seen the same way by "neutral" historians. It bothers me that authors on the right and left see their role more as propogandists then historians.

Well, we can obviously have an argument here, but as to "neutral" historians, you have several prominent liberals who have written positively about Reagan, including Princeton's Sean Wilentz, Richard Reeves, John Patrick Diggins (a protege of Arthur Schlesinger), and James Mann.  Most, like Wilentz, have strong criticisms to make of aspects of Reagan, but it is flat incorrect to say that "neutral" historians wouldn't treat him positively.  They already have.

Since Ronald Reagan was a reactionary, none too bright, perhaps suffering from dementia throughout his two terms as many have insisted, completely ignorant of economics, guilty of criminal conduct while in office, racist and otherwise bigoted, mean, largely uneducated and indifferent, not seriously religious, a hypocrite and a liar, a corporate tool and largely a PR hack throughout most of his adult life and especially as President of the United States, is this man not a perfect symbol for the current incarnation of the GOP?

So we'll put you down as undecided?

I have heard that Reagan was a proponent of health care for all Americans? But this was notion was stifled by the GOP.

I think you are confusing him with Nixon, who did at one point propose universal health insurance.  (In an irony, Ted Kennedy opposed the Nixon proposal, as he didn't think it went far enough.)  Reagan as far as I know always opposed government-sponsored universal health care.

How open should we be about Reagan's mistakes? Selling guns to Iran? Bargaining with terrorists over hostages after saying he wouldn't? Calling Marcos a "friend of democracy"? Saying that (then apartheid-ruled) South Africa had supported the U.S. in all of its wars? One news report said the Reagan Library's exhibits were open about Iran-Contra, but to what degree? Today we have some criticizing Obama for not being tough enough with Iran, but he didn't sell it guns.

I am somewhat surprised that more isn't being made of Iran-contra in the observance of his centennial this last week.  It is the darkest spot of his presidency, and I'm quite hard on him about it my book, which is otherwise pro-Reagan.  There were multiple mistakes and failings, the chief one being his insistence the arms deals continue after the first few had failed.  And there were other problems.  Some of the issue raised then about executive relations with Congress over foreign policy matters are current again under Bush and Obama in how we deal with terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.  Beyond that, I have challenged conservatives to examine what should be learned from Reagan's failure (which Reagan acknowledged later) to control government spending growth more effectively.

Ronald Reagan raised taxes seven of the eight years he was President. He also tripled the deficit. Wouldn't the present day GOP be less in love with him if they knew these facts?

Actually the time many conservatives were very unhappy about Reagan's tax compromises (especially the 1983 budget deal).  But the liberals who point this out overlook one thing: Reagan never compromised on the taxes that liberals most wanted raised--income taxes.  The tax increases Reagan agreed to were always excise taxes, and changes in deductions and other things that mostly benefitted big business.  Reagan believed that not all taxes are created equal as to their effect on economic performance.

Too bad the Founding Fathers didn't require in the Constitution that if politicians cut taxes or increase spending, they were required to make equivalent spending cuts or find specific new revenue sources -- not hollow rhetoric or endless borrowing -- to fund the Federal Government. This is a simple concept but one most politicians don't have the moral fiber to address. Reagan cut taxes, increased unfunded spending and the National Debt went up nearly 200 percent when he left office and headed back to live out his days in the cushy Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Other than nostalgia, why is Reagan championed by conservatives on this particular subject?

Well, Reagan did urge a balanced budget amendment in every state of the union speech, plus a line item veto for the president, as well as amendments requiring a 2/3rds vote to raise taxes and a constitutional spending limit.  None of these ever got very far (though the balanced budget amendment passed one house I believe), and might not be good ideas anyway.

Didn't Ronald Reagan make his first speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi after getting the nomination and wasn't the purpose of the visit to send a message to Southern Whites that he was on their side? And isn't that how he carried the south. Should anyone be proud of that?

The inside story of this whole episode has never been told.  (I didn't hear most of it until after I'd finished my book.)  That venue was Trent Lott's idea (!).  When Reagan was reminded of the checkered history of the place, Dick Wirthlin told me it was one of only three or four times he ever saw Reagan angry.  But he didn't want to cancel the appearance, as it would make him look weak, etc.  And it did prompt Jimmy Carter into making a string of blunders that helped Reagan.  By the way, the same day Reagan appeared there, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt (a Democrat) wrote in the New York Times that "states rights" was a concept that didn't deserve its bad reputation.  How come Babbitt could get away with saying that, but not Reagan?

Where do you think President Reagan would be now regarding gay rights when you remember he was against the Briggs Iniative that would have prohibbited gays from working as school teachers ?

Thanks for recalling Reagan's stance on the Briggs initiative, which has been almost forgotten.  I have no idea where he'd come down, though I suspect he'd oppose gay marriage, and support civil unions, which is the halfway house on the issue right now.

When Reagan famously declaimed in his first inaugural address that government doesn't solve problems, it IS the problem, he made what is probably the most radical, extremist statement we have heard from any public official in the modern era, worthy of a 1920s anarchist. Yet during his time in office he signed multiple tax increases and expanded the federal budget and workforce. So what was his real view of what government is for? What did he think the government was supposed to be doing?

A 1920s anarchist??  You mean like Calvin Coolidge (whom Reagan most closely resembled)?  Hadn't realized Coolidge could be counted as an anarchist.  But in any case, we shouldn't miss the immediate sequel in the inaugural address, where Reagan says: "Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government.  It is rather to make it work--work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride our back."  Not terribly anarchist--or even libertarian.


I'm afraid--and I mean that honestly--that Reagan's most important legacy may turn out to be the fact that he redefined the GOP as a party hostile to what it perceives as environmental activism. During his presidency, that meant inaction on national issues such as acid rain. Now, however, the apparent permanence of that position means that one of America's two great political parties is implacably opposed to accepting the reality of climate change, and acting on it. It's not what Reagan intended or perhaps would have wished were he alive now, but given the importance of the U.S. in all global affairs, this aspect of his legacy may well turn out to have catastrophic consequences for the entire planet. I truly hope I'm wrong.

I could go on all day on this question (and unfortunately it would take all day), but guess who said this: "There is an absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment.  The bulldozer mentality of the past is a luxury we can no longer afford.  Our roads and other public projects must be planned to prevent the destruction of scenic resources and to avoid needlessly upsetting the ecological balance."  Answer: Gov. Reagan, in 1970, about the time he appointed a Sierra Clubber as his top environmental aide, cancelled several dams and road projects, set aside about 100,000 acres of redwoods in state parks, etc.

The story of his presidency is much more complicated, but if you look at the actual data, something contrary to image emerges: air pollution fell further, faster, than at any time since 1970.  This was mostly due to technology changes that came on line.


What is the best thing Reagan did for America?

The one that is most forgotten today. At the time Reagan became president in 1980, the institution itself was in deep trouble.  The previous four presidents had all been judged failures, and the theme became widespread that no one could be a successful president in modern times.  For example, political scientist Theodore Lowi wrote: “The presidency has become an impossible job, because the presidency has become too big, even for the likes of FDR.”  The air was thick with reform proposals, from a single six-year term to parliamentary style cabinet government. 

The highest measure of Reagan’s achievement is that after eight years of his presidency, the Iran-Contra disaster notwithstanding, all talk of the presidency as an inadequate institution had vanished into the mists, and has not returned.  The National Journal polled presidential scholars in 1985, finding that a large majority thought Reagan had succeeded in “reviving trust and confidence in an institution that in the post-Vietnam era had been perceived as being unworkable.”  Americans may have been unhappy with Reagan’s successors, but not because the presidency itself is in trouble.

Do you have any particular memories of Reagan? Something that sticks out to you? A story you remember well?

My favorite was his quip to Sam Donaldson in a 1982 press conference, when Donaldson asked if Reagan should share the blame for the country's poor economic condition instead of just blaming Democrats.  Reagan replied, "Yes, Sam, because for a long time I was a Democrat."  You can look this one up on YouTube.

not sure what the big deal is about RR losing his marbles, i remember hearing him at an ABA session in 1985 and thinking "they got what they wanted." Didn't they know he wasn't all there but reelected him anyway? That's what i think.

Whether his Alzheimers was starting its onset in his second term is hard to know.  Reading his diary and other documents (meeting transcripts etc), it is hard to detect a noticeable loss of faculty.  But he was old, had been shot, etc.  I do notice that the Reagan of the 1980s generally spoke slower, and seemed more relaxed or even plodding (because more in control of himself?) than he was in the 1960s and 1970s, when he speaks quicker, but is also more feisty in ways that didn't always help him.  Even without the shooting and the possible Alzheimers, the hypothesis should be entertained that he has past his prime.  (But so was FDR in 1944.)

Isn't it a myth or accepted as dogma by the MSM that the Democrats are the party of tax and spend and the Republicans are fiscally responsible? Doesn't the evidence going back to Reagan indicate the GOP when in power has run enormous deficits and debt and grew the Federal government? Dick Cheney said that Reagan proved deficits don't matter.

There is something to the first part of this question, that is, why does the GOP have such a better reputation on taxes and spending when the actual record is more mixed?  (i.e., Clinton's spending record looks positively Republican when matched up against the last 50 years in total, and arguably better than Reagan's depending on how you qualify it, i.e., Clinton got to enjoy defense budget cuts).  I think it comes down to something simple--Democrats seem much more eager to raise taxes and spending than Republicans (certainly true under Obama), but one thing the Tea Party proves, I think, is that a lot of people now have noticed that both parties are pretty bad on this score.

I still don't know what to make of Cheney's remark, and I've heard competing and conflicting explanations of what he actually meant by it.

I find their obsession with Reagan to be a bit creepy and cult like. Reagan also wasn't the stalwart Republican people would now like to make him out as. I do think, though, that is a very demonstrative of the lack of new ideas and fresh thought on the right that they are left to hitch their wagon to a so-so president from 30 years ago...

Whether you think he was so-so as a president or not, if you think of it in the abstract, Reagan is like FDR or JFK for Democrats--a model of politically successful governance to point to.  You won't find many Nixon Republicans, or Carter Democrats, for a simple reason.  (I could go on: Eisenhower Republicans?  Cleveland Democrats?  Not even Wilson Democrats make the lists.)

Reagan used to invite Tip O'Neill to dinner. How can Obama get Boehner to come to dinner?

Well, he might just want to try inviting him.  If nothing else, they can share a cigarette together on the White House balcony.

Why does President Obama say such nice things about Reagan when he was disastrous for the American people with his policies. He can only be accredited with being a good speaker who could unite the country together as he stabbed us in the back.

Leaving aside the many quarrels that might be picked here, just consider that Bill Clinton said nice things about Richard Nixon at the time of Nixon's death.  Clinton, and Hillary, had worked to impeach Nixon!  I think you can chalk this up to the basic comity of American politics that everyone says we want more of after Tucson.

He had too much guts on immigration reform. Nobody likes to remember amnesty was Reagan's thing--or if they do, they call it a mistake.

Hmm.  Maybe.  Two things to keep in mind.  First, the illegal population at the time of the 1986 act was about 1 to 2 million--far less than the perhaps 20 million we have today.  Second, Reagan was a big believer in assimilation--that is, that immigrants should become citizens in the full sense of embracing the nation's principles.  That idea, which multicultural liberals don't like, was notably missing from George W. Bush's immigration reform language and proposals.  It might go differently if Bush had actually emulated Reagan's approach to the issue.

An article in Salon had an interview with Will Bunch, who wrote "Tear Down This Myth" and Bunch credited Grover Norquist's Ronald Reagan Legacy Project for rehabilitating Reagan's image, which was once worse than Carter's. Did time and Reagan's Alzheimer's basically lessen American's feelings toward him and his Presidency?

I  saw that interview, and I wasn't sure how literally Bunch meant to credit Norquist's project alone, though I am sure Grover would be happy to take credit.  I think the proper parallel is with Eisenhower, whom liberals thought was plodding and unimaginative in the 1950s, but who about 10 years later (it really started with Murray Kempton, and then Fred Greenstein at Princeton) started discovering hidden dimensions to the man, and revised their opinion sharply upward.  Similarly with Reagan, the discovery of his extensive writings in the 1970s, and the opening of documents from his presidency, contradicted a number of misperceptions about the man, while introducing new mysteries (such as his fervent nuclear abolitionism).

To what degree was Reagan's thinking, especially in the later years of his administration, influenced by fundamentalist, "end times" views?

Interesting question.  Possibly.  In one of his private letters to Peter Hannaford, he said something like (I have the exact quote in my book somewhere) that a lot of things going on remind him of the "end times" in the Bible.  He then added, prudently for a politician, "Don't quote me on this."  And on more than one occasion he said publicly things like "we may be the generation that sees Armageddon."  Amazing stuff.  I tried to find out whether he might have, during the 1970s, read Hal Lindsay's famous prophecy book The Late Great Planet Earth (I believe this was the top selling book of the decade), but didn't find any evidence.  But that (crackpot) book informed a lot of fundamentalist Christian thinking back then.

Could you please tell us if Reagan ever submitted a proposal for a balanced budget? Hint: the answer begins with the letter "n."

Narrowly correct, perhaps, but perhaps not; the first year's five-year budget plan (which is how budgeting is done) projected a small surplus by 1985, so I could dispute you.  But our five-year budget plans are like five-year Soviet economic plans--they are always wrong.  In Reagan's case, even if they'd got all the budget cuts they proposed for those five years, the recession of 1982 would have put it all out of whack right away.

Do you have a favorite Reagan quote? Why do you like it?

Yes, an obscure quote from his 1965 book "Where's the Rest of Me?" explaining his fondness for Tom Paine--a fondness which used to drive many conservative thinkers slightly crazy.  I can't find it right now for some reason;  I'll post it if I can lay my hands on it.

If Reagan in 1980 didn't know about the "checkered history" of Philadelphia, Miss., wouldn't that indicate someone who was a little out of touch with some important public issues?

I didn't say he didn't know it.  I said he had to be "reminded" of it.  I am pretty sure--though I'd have to go back and check--that he had commented on the Schwermer--Chaney--Goodman murders back in the 1960s.

Mr. Hayward: I learned some years ago that there was a coterie of older, wealthy gay men around Nancy Reagan, especially a former movie star turned interior decorator named William "Billy" Haynes, who wound up redecorating the American embassy in London for Walter Annenberg. The interesting thing is that when Mr, Haynes died, the only person who could really comfort his grieving, long time partner Jimmy Shields was Ronald Reagan, who told Jimmy (I am quoting from memory), "You know, Billy wouldn't want you to carry on this way, he'd want you to keep the decorating business going." Those who think that Ronald Reagan was ultraconservative on social issues should remember he lived in Hollywood for much longer than he lived in Sacramento or DC. Thanks.

I believe Haynes and Shields were guests in the Lincoln bedroom while Reagan was president.  If not them, then two other gay friends of Nancy's.

He did invite him to the state dinner for China and Boehner refused the invitation. Not exactly detente.

Well, perhaps.  A state dinner is not the same as a one-on-one or small dinner.  There's no real face time at state dinners (I've been to one--great fun for a citizen, but probably less so for a senior member of Congress.)

I am having a hard time with this continuing effort to deify Reagan. I lived thru his attempts to shut down EPA and other government agencies during his first term, and believe me, it was an ugly time. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and he failed. Even US industries recognized the folly of having 50 states doing regulations rather than one central agency. This whole effort to make him the latest "saint" is unseemly.

Again, this requires a long argument/coloquy.  I wrote at some length in my book about the Superfund train wreck with Burford-Gorsuch-McGill or whatever her name was that week.  On the other hand, I can suggest a counter-factual in which a second-term Jimmy Carter would have constrained the EPA, probably not in the same way, but in similar ways.  Above all, the EPA was only about 10 years old when Reagan became president, and like several other new regulatory agencies, there were still a lot of fundamental problems with them in my opinion.  Quite right that business does not want 50 separate state regulatory standards; I don't think regulatory federalism was part of Reagan's (stillborn) New Federalism initiative, but I could be wrong.

Steve Hayward here, signing out.  Thanks everyone for your questions--even the unfriendly ones.  Always makes for a stimulating time.

In This Chat
Steven Hayward
Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989."
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