The Original Comeback Kid

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

On President’s Day, we not only remember George Washington and Abraham Lincoln but also another president born in February.

American presidents of both parties, all too often, need to be appreciated at a distance. Of the 20th Century chief executives, perhaps only Ronald Reagan holds up well under scrutiny.

Truly, the more you know about him, the more there is to like. Even a few academics appreciate him.

“Political scientist Andrew Busch conducted a content analysis of major presidential speeches from Lyndon Johnson through Reagan and found that Reagan cited the Founders three to four times as often as his four predecessors,” Steven F. Hayward writes in his masterful The Age of Reagan. “Reagan mentions the Constitution ten times in his memoirs, often in a substantive way; Carter, Ford, Nixon and Johnson mention the Constitution a grand total of zero times.”

In this way, Reagan represented both a continuity of American tradition and a break with a series of, to put it charitably, failed presidencies. Reagan also marked a number of first in the Oval Office:

• The first divorced man elected president;
• The first Democrat-turned-Republican to serve as commander-in-chief; and
• The first labor union leader.

It was this last part of his resume that led to Reagan’s success as presidential negotiator at home and abroad where others before, and, for that matter, after, him failed. In the words of a Kenny Rogers’ song, he knew when to hold ‘em, knew when to fold ‘em, although did much better than break even.

Contrary to expectations, it was in high stakes international talks, where he was least experienced, that he was, arguably most effective. Paul Nitze, arms control negotiator for every president since Harry Truman, found the Gipper’s approach to disarmament discussions with the Soviet Union a sharp break with the methods of other presidents.

Hayward recounts what happened when Reagan gave Nitze instructions on how to proceed with missile reduction proposals. “If the United States could give up Pershings, he asked Nitze, why shouldn’t the Soviets give up their SS-20s?” Hayward writes. “Nitze said that he didn’t think it realistic to go back to the zero option position in Geneva.” Reagan said, “Well, Paul, you just tell them you’re working for one tough son of a bitch.” Paul was at that, and not just because the oldest president ever elected had recently survived a near fatal assassination attempt.

“As he had long wanted to, Reagan had said nyet [italics the author’s] to a weak arms deal—but to his own people, not face-to-face with a Soviet leader,” Hayward notes. With the Soviets, President Reagan did walk away from a bad deal at Reykajavik in 1986 but latter signed onto extensive disarmament pacts with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Those agreements alarmed conservatives at the time but Hayward, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) shows that they need not have worried. With the benefit of declassified data from both the U. S. and Russian governments, we can now see that President Reagan entered and left those discussions in a position of strength.

Meanwhile, of course, the Cold War ended with communism in retreat. In his thorough examination of the Reagan years, Hayward pretty much lays waste the media myth of President Reagan as scripted and staff-driven.

For one thing, the 40th president penned more of his own speeches than other presidents, so there is a good chance that when Reagan worked from a script, he also wrote it. Also, Reagan would overrule the advice of his advisers.

One notable example was his use of the phrase “Tear down this wall” in front of the Berlin barricade that separated the communist half of the city from the Western part despite pleas from his advisors not to include it in the speech. Indeed, Hayward shows that one staffer who advised tearing out that reference was none other than Colin Powell.