Jacob Heilbrunn: Ronald Reagan ... A Uniter, Not a Decider

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jacob Heilbrunn writes regularly for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and is author of the forthcoming They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (Doubleday Books: December 2007).]

Jules Tygiel, Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism (New York: Pearson Longman, 2006), 392 pp., $14.95.

Thomas W. Evans, The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 302 pp., $29.50.

Paul Kengor, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (Los Angeles: Regan Books, 2006), 412 pp., $29.95.

John Patrick Diggins, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History (New York: Norton, 2007), 493 pp., $27.95.

Ever since Ronald Reagan left the White House, his reputation has been on the upswing. Now that George W. Bush is floundering and the GOP has forfeited control of Congress, Reagan’s legacy looms even larger. Only by returning to the conservative principles that Reagan espoused, his admirers suggest, can the GOP hope to regain its once solid electoral footing.

At the 2007 Conservative Political Action Committee meeting, Rudolph Giuliani referred to Reagan no less than a dozen times to present himself as the Gipper’s true heir. John McCain also claimed Reagan’s mantle, praising him as "an apostle of freedom." And at the annual Frontiers of Freedom Ronald Reagan Gala, Mitt Romney invoked Reagan’s legacy, pointing to his successful prosecution of the Cold War as a model for the War on Terror and citing his observation that, "I have seen four wars during my lifetime and none of them began because America was too strong."

Beneath the paeans to Reagan, however, lies a potentially divisive battle over what he actually represented. Depending on which conservative camp you listen to, Reagan was either a bold crusader who championed the creation of democracies around the world or a cautious pragmatist who would have viewed George W. Bush with horror. The first camp consists of neoconservatives who advocate active American involvement in democratizing the Middle East, citing the Reagan legacy of confronting communism and promoting democracy in Eastern Europe. In their view, Reagan would have applauded U.S. engagement in Iraq. According to Norman Podhoretz, for instance, Bush has demonstrated that he is "a fiery follower of Ronald Reagan."

But to traditional, realist conservatives, the neoconservative appropriation of the Reagan legacy is heresy. This camp holds that Reagan, unlike the neoconservatives, was always reluctant to use force abroad. In America Alone, Stefan Halper, who served in the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and Jonathan Clarke, a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, argue that "the neoconservative assertion of a line of descent from Reagan’s foreign policy is far-fetched." They maintain that Reagan did not conduct an open-ended campaign for democracy and that he sought to avoid the direct use of U.S. force in any conflict, from Central America to Afghanistan. The Reagan Doctrine, in other words, wasn’t an open-ended invitation to perpetual warfare around the globe, but a shrewd assessment that relying on surrogates could achieve American aims more effectively than direct intervention and that direct negotiations with adversaries could sometimes pay big dividends. Nor does the conservative critique of Bush end here. Libertarian conservatives, such as the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner, complain that Bush has strayed from the anti-big-government campaign Reagan waged. Bush, by contrast, has allegedly been bedazzled by the program of "national greatness" espoused by William Kristol and David Brooks. A big spender, he has repudiated the Goldwater-Reagan tradition and become an advocate of big government—even, in the words of economist Bruce Bartlett, an "impostor" and "pretend conservative."...

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

George Robert Gaston - 7/31/2007

In the last half of the Carter administration OpEd Writers for both the New York Times and Washington Post declared that being the president of the United States was just too big a job for just one person, and that the job needed to be divided between domestic and foreign policy branches. After all, if a fellow as bright as Jimmy Carter could fail, the job was just too big.

Ronald Regan proved the founding fathers to be right, the scribblers wrong and Carter just to be inept.