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Ronald Reagan's centennial, Part II: An All-American American

Ronald Reagan as deputy marshall  

Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, cause for numerous political, memorial and academic observances across the country this weekend.

The Ticket invited one of the nation's top presidential scholars, Prof. Robert Schmuhl of the University of Notre Dame, to examine the political legacy of Reagan as he relates to others of his generation, exclusively for Ticket readers.

(Scroll to bottom for Schmuhl's biography and book information.) We've also included several videos by and about Reagan.

This item is Part II of Schmuhl's writing.

Part I appeared here earlier this morning and can be viewed by clicking here.

Please use the Share buttons above to pass these on, and perhaps leave your own Reagan memories or thoughts in the Comments section below.

-- Andrew Malcolm


Ronald Reagan, American

Ronald Reagan titled his autobiography “An American Life.”

Unlike other presidential authors who put the focus on themselves—Richard Nixon’s “RN” or Bill Clinton’s “My Life”—or emphasized a theme—Gerald Ford’s “A Time to Heal,” Jimmy Carter’s “Keeping Faith” or George W. Bush’s “Decision Points”—Reagan used an indefinite article and a collective adjective.

To his way of thinking, his life was representative, one chapter in what he saw as the larger story of America.

Beyond his accomplishments as president, particularly efforts to invigorate the economy and hasten the end of the Cold War, Reagan brought to his eight White House years a sense of humor (see video just below here) and an....

....unalloyed Americanness that was always a mystery to people from other countries.

For them, his image and reality merged into the gun-toting cowboy from his Hollywood days, and he was following a script written by figures removed from public view.

At home, however, Reagan fit right in and seemed natural. (Listen to the way he talks on the video here and during his presidential campaign announcement video in Part I of today's Ticket series.)

A modest Midwestern upbringing—“We didn’t live on the wrong side of the....

...tracks,” he’d quip, “but close enough to hear the train whistles”—wasn’t a limitation to him or his horizons. And in his 20's the future president headed West to try his skills in communication and acting.

For a couple of decades, numerous roles came his way, and so did success. Interestingly, though, Reagan evolved from playing characters to being himself—as a speaker on behalf of General Electric and later as a “citizen-politician” with firm ideas about issues and the direction of the country.

Yet, without wearing an actor's mask, he also established connections between his present and his past.

Ronald Reagan on the Eureka College football team, 1929For instance, in the 1940 movie “Knute Rockne All American,” Reagan, who actually did play collegiate football at Eureka College (see 1929 photo at right) played George Gipp, a Notre Dame football star, who died shortly after his last collegiate game.

Gipp became the subject of a deathbed story (“Win One for the Gipper”) t hat Rockne as coach later used to rally his team during an important game.

But think about it. When Reagan had moved into politics and was asking voters to “win one for the Gipper,” he was really assuming the role of Rockne, the coach, in delivering a pep talk to inspire listeners to help someone with a nickname he’d appropriated.

That almost all the Gipp-Rockne story is fabricated (Gipp wasn’t even called “the Gipper” in his short life) adds to the artfulness, if not complexity, of its usage.

Whether player or coach and whatever the setting or occasion, Reagan radiated optimism and confidence. America’s glass was always better than half-full. (And he didn't mind being the butt of jokes either, as evidenced by this next video of Don Rickles at a roast of then-Gov. Reagan....

Since Barack Obama became president just over two years ago, pollsters have pointed out parallels between him and Reagan. In both cases, their personal traits receive more approval and higher ratings than their governmental policies. However, until Obama’s recent speech in Tucson, he had not made an emotional, human connection with the public.

Reagan was a master at this—innate sincerity combined with words of hope. But his star-power charisma didn’t overshadow a common touch, which came through in both public and private. In her memoir, “Personal History,” the late Katharine Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, tells a story about the Reagans and others coming to her home for dinner in late 1988.

After a guest spilled a drink, she notes: “I was dumbstruck at seeing the president of the United States down on his hands and knees in the middle of the crowd, picking up the ice.” Moments like that are often as revealing as any planned or scripted performance.

Reagan was a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday when he was inaugurated for the first time in 1981. Despite his age, subject to many self-effacing jokes (see videos), he always looked ahead more than behind.

Better days for America, and Americans, would dawn. He knew....

....that in his bones, repeated it in countless speeches and written statements, and helped others think likewise.

(The last example we have of that style is President Reagan's Farewell Address (see video above) given from the Oval Office in 1989 just nine days before he turned the White House over to his vice president, George H.W. Bush, with a stern warning to his countrymen about their American history and how they must pass on its lessons to youngsters.)

Five years later in 1994 when the Great Communicator revealed that he had Alzheimer’s disease, Reagan chose to use a personally written letter to convey the news.

Near the end of his goodbye letter to fellow Americans, the former president writes:

When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country and eternal optimism for its future.

This particular American life ended on June 5, 2004, at the age of 93.

To gauge his continuing legacy consider how many prospective candidates for president invoke his name or try to identify with him in some way. That, too, is part of the American future that Reagan created.

Nancy Reagan on one of her regular visits to her husband's grave

--Robert SchmuhlUniversity of Notre Dame professor Robert Schmuhl

Robert Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.

Among Schmuhl's books are “Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality” (more info here) and “Wounded Titans: American Presidents and the Perils of Power” (more info here).

Photos: Warner Bros.; Eureka College 1929; most of the videos and the photo of Nancy Reagan courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.

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Conservative pundits hold that if the current Federal Government followed the policy set thirty years ago by the then President Ronald Reagan of cutting taxes across the board—income taxes, payroll taxes, corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, death taxes, and every other kind of tax—the invisible hand of capitalism would be free to work its magic, unemployment would drop, productivity would rise, tax revenues would increase, and our feeble economy would regain its legendary strength in short order.
But if the solution were that simple and self-evident, why haven’t subsequent administrations followed the Reagan model? Because it’s a myth.

Macroeconomics 101 texts warn students to guard against the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, the false assumption that because one event occurred before another event, the first event caused the second event.. The notion that the economic prosperity of the 1980’s was triggered by the Reagan’s tax cuts offers a good example. After the cuts went into effect, unemployment did indeed fall, from 7.6% when Reagan took office, to 5.5%, and the GDP grew 32%, from $4.1 trillion to $5.4. But what really made that possible were the strict Keynesian measures implemented by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker to check the 13% inflation triggered caused by the Vietnam War and the Great Society spending of previous administrations. By raising interest rates and drastically reducing the money supply, by creating, in effect, an inflation-busting recession, at the height of which employment reached 9.7%, Volker brought inflation down to a sound 2.2%, thereby setting the table for Reaganomics.

Another factor that Reagan votaries neglect to mention is that while cutting taxes on the one hand, Reagan disproportionately increased spending on the other. During his eight-year term in office, the national debt grew 18%, at a greater rate than under any president since (though Barack Obama seems on course to break that record.) So the other side of the ledger shows that the economic growth attributed to Reagan’s free-market boosting tax costs was in large measure financed by government deficit spending.

As governor of California, Ronald Reagan was notorious for his propensity to tax and spend. During his eight-year term as governor (1967-1975) he balanced the sate budget, not by cutting taxes and spending, as he had promised, but by promoting the highest tax hike in California history. Not until he was elected President and came under the influence of his supply-side economic advisor, Arthur Laffer, did Ronald Reagan became a true believer in cutting taxes.

Also unfounded is the notion that Reagan won the Cold War. His famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech was all theatrics, a performance worthy of the Hollywood actor that he had been before entering politics. Gorbachev had already informed Reagan, months in advance, that he was planning to dismantle the Soviet Union, which had long been deteriorating under its own dead weight. So Reagan did not make history that day. He just happened to be in the right time and place when history was being made, and he took advantage of it.

Nor was Ronald Reagan the God-fearing man that conservative Christians think His occasional church attendance was also an act. (As was the case with Bill Clinton and many other politicians.)
And unlike the “buck stops here” Harry Truman, the arm-twisting Lyndon Johnson, and the micromanaging Jimmy Carter, President Ronald Reagan tended to relegate the grind of governing to his advisors and staff. Actually, he was more of a figurehead, a ceremonial presence, than a chief executive—which explains why he was able to distance himself from the many scandals that marred his presidency. Though over 130 administration officials were investigated and many convicted for violation of national or international law, Reagan in each case was absolved from blame by swearing under oath that he was unaware of what his underlings were up to. Not for nothing did the news media dubbed him “the Teflon President.”

Egregious among those scandals was the illegal sale of weapons to Iran, an enemy nation, under the pretext of trading arms for American hostages, and the proceeds channeled to guerillas mercenaries, the Contras, fighting to overthrow the Communist regime of Nicaragua. One of the players in the covert deal, Colonel Oliver North declared years later that the Reagan had been duly briefed and given his approval. Another player in that scandal, Robert McFarlane, tried to commit suicide. Had Reagan been a hands-on leader and owned up to his administration’s failings, he would not be the mythical figure that he has become.

During his last year in office, at age 76, Reagan waxed even more aloof, often turning off his hearing aid and dozing off in cabinet meetings, a symptom of his advancing Alzheimer’s disease; but by then it didn’t matter, as the business of governing had been discretely assumed by his wife and close advisers.

Ronald Reagan, to be sure, was a likeable, charismatic man, a poster image of a red-blooded American. His upbeat press conferences and speeches were a welcome change from the negative moralizing of his Born Again Christian predecessor. But the notion that he was one of our great presidents, worthy of a place on Mt. Rushmore, is groundless.

But even if Ronald Reagan was the great man that his votaries claim, he is ancient history. The world has changed drastically since he occupied the White House. In his day, Communist China and Brazil were still underdeveloped nations, the European Union did not exist, and, except for the surging Japanese auto industry, the American economy had no foreign economic competition or entanglements to speak of. Even if Reagan’s supply-side model worked wonders back then, in today’s global economy, that model is not just wrong, it’s irrelevant. The complex problems facing our nation in this new century call for fresh ideas and solutions, not hero worship.

Memo to the GOP: Y'all don't have a Reagan in your top twelve, So y'all are screaming lies and calling names to sway the mindless public and gullible FOX listeners. We all liked Reagan. He was likable and well known to the public. The GOP should address the generation of jobs here in America and move on to address the real issues like re-regulation of the banking industry, funding and enforcing the gun laws currently on the books. There has been so much Palinization and Boehnerization mixed in with the McConnellization and Beckization that Brush Himoff has had to go way out side of his normal bad-mouthing to make any new waves. Americans need to wake up and smell the stink emanating from the bigoted rhetoric of the "Wrongs". That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

I think that the very phrase "All-American" needs to be re-examined, and not that too mot just in the context of Reagan!


It has been said that Reagan never even took of his coat or tie off while in the Oval Office as he had so much respect for it. Contrast that with Clinton who couldn't even keep his pants on....

Compare President Reagan against JFK. JFK invaded Cuba, addicted to drugs, cheated on his wife, expanded his war of choice, Vietnam, ignored civil rights to get reelected. I'll take President Reagan anytime.

The facts of Reagan's presidency do not match the fiction.

How long will this revisionist love fest continue? The aw shucks, "unalloyed Americanness" the writer mentions is pure hokum. The Reagan administration's mean-spritedness continues today in the proliferation of right-wing extremism in its myriad expressions of ideological nonsense, based on its appeal to the lowest common denominator. Even David Stockman, the principal cheerleader for his "trickle-down" economic policies, has had an apparent change of heart.

Let's get on with the business of the 21st Century and stop trying to move the nation backwards to the 18th.

George H. W. Bush wasn't wrong calling it “voodoo economics.”
The reason so many people revere him is that they see his heart as being in the right place (even though his head often wasn't.) He was all too willing to distort the truth for ideological ends, making up the notorious welfare queen story, for example.
Good post, Mr. Navarro.

AIDS was first reported in the medical and mainstream press in 1981, it was not until October 1987 that Reagan publicly spoke about the AIDS epidemic in a major policy address. By the end of that year, 59,572 AIDS cases had been reported and 27,909 of those women and men had died. He and his administration did almost nothing during the first seven years of the epidemic. AIDS research was chronically underfunded. Community education and prevention programs were routinely denied federal funding.

Reagan, a man affectionately dubbed the Great Communicator by his supporters, was excruciatingly, unjustifiably silent about HIV and AIDS. Defenders of the Reagan legacy like to argue that his domestic policy advisers downplayed AIDS to such a degree that the former president never developed a sense of urgency. To accept this, you would also have to believe that Reagan never watched television or picked up a newspaper. The media -- print and television, including the first 24-hour news network, CNN -- were all over AIDS in the 1980s. Histrionic televangelists like Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell seized any opportunity to articulate and promote the idea that AIDS was God's wrath upon homosexuals.
President's need to be regarded for all their actions, not just their charms. Reagan by any standard, for the AIDS crisis alone was a miserable, failing president. The only real fact about all this is that Reagan was in fear of the right, and he did not want to offend them in any way: to the tune of thousands of dead men and women.

The ultra lefties know that America loves Reagan and this is why they have begun using modern day equivalents of book burning to try and erase our memories of Reagan and those trying to continue his policies and beliefs about our great country.

These tactics include but are not limited to : hounding sponsors of talk radio in order to silence talk radio from the right, posting false stories in the comments section of any post that refers to Reagan, forcing those who are scheduled to give speeches to cancel by spreading false rumors of impending violence and the list goes on and on.

To the sad smear mongers here who make such unfounded statements like, " ..of his advancing Alzheimer’s disease."

There is no evidence of that. And it's been coldly put to rest by his neurosurgeon.

He did speak of HIV/Aids.. as early as 1985... he pushed for more funding.

It was Pres. Clinton, who being completely aware of the world's unfolding pandemic, turned his back on the issue. Progressive columnist and frequent guest on MSNBC, David Corn wrote in 2002, in Too little, too late
How many times is Bill Clinton going to apologize to Africa?

" The prevailing view was, these people should die quietly. A cynical guess at Clinton's motivations: AIDS in Africa, it doesn’t poll well. "

On the other hand, President George W. Bush would be the man who set the historic bar on what leadership and vison was all about in proposing, passing, and implmenting a program that is world aclaimed and will save millions of lives.

Interest rates fell greatly during his tenure, as did unemployment and inflation. The economy boomed. Blacks and Hispanics were the greatest benefactors in income gains, and blacks made significant education gains.

Reagan came in during an ecoomic crisis. Did President George Bush. So did President Obama. All of them were forced to use much stimulus .. it has a cost.

Reagan was successful at it.

All of our presidential administrations have black spots on numerous covert forays in international matters. Reagan - less so than say JFK, or LBJ.

Let's celebrate the greatness of this man. Period.

@ Zuke..

It's not ture Zuke. HIV/Aids was a relative new disease then. Reagan first spoke publically about it - pushing for more funding, in 1985:

September 17, 1985 - Responding to a reporter's question on AIDS research, the president told a White House news conference - his words:

"[I]ncluding what we have in the budget for '86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I'm sure other medical groups are doing. And we have $100 million in the budget this year; it'll be 126 million next year. So, this is a top priority with us. Yes, there's no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer."

I am learning more and more about former president Reagan, I liked his spirit, he truly seemed to be devoted to his wife, his country, the people from all walks of life. Can't say that about some of our former presidents. My, how Nancy must miss him.

My opinion of Ronald Reagan was set in stone in 1988 when he dismissed Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis as an "invalid" when it was revealed that Dukakis sought psychiatric counseling years earlier after the suicide of his brother. People who make jokes or make fun of people suffering from mental illness deserve no respect from me. I don't have any fond memories of Reagan.

Does anyone know of a link that has James A. Baker's great speech at Mr. Reagan's 100th celebration?


(AM responds: Try the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library site.)


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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