Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



The real Ronald Reagan

LOS ANGELES - When eight Republican presidential candidates gather to debate tonight in Simi Valley, one thing seems certain: Lavish tribute will be paid to Ronald Reagan.

LOS ANGELES - When eight Republican presidential candidates gather to debate tonight in Simi Valley, one thing seems certain: Lavish tribute will be paid to Ronald Reagan.

That is fitting: The event is being held at Reagan's presidential library and burial ground, high on a bluff overlooking the Santa Susana Mountains.

It's also smart politics. Reagan has become a sainted figure in the GOP who, not incidentally, is the most successful and popular of the party's modern presidents.

But the Reagan reverie overlooks much of the Reagan reality.

As president, the conservative icon approved several tax increases to deal with a soaring budget deficit, repeatedly boosted the nation's debt limit, signed into law a bill granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and, despite his anti-Washington rhetoric, oversaw an increase in the size and spending of the federal government. Before that, as California governor, he enacted what at the time was the largest state tax increase in American history. He also signed into law one of the nation's most permissive abortion bills. Any Republican who tried that today would be cast out of the party.


The fact that Reagan often took such actions speaks to what, by modern Republican standards, may be one of the greatest heresies of all: Reagan was a pragmatist, willing, when necessary, to cut a deal and compromise.

"He had a strong set of core values and operated off of those," said Stuart Spencer, a Republican strategist who stood by Reagan's side for virtually his entire political career, starting with his first run for governor. "But when push came to shove, he did various things he didn't like doing, because he knew it was in the best interests of the state or country at the time."

Spencer dismissed the current vogue of Reagan revisionism: "A lot of those people running out there don't really understand what he did. It's just a matter of attaching themselves to a winner."

Reagan's transformation from man to myth is, to some degree, calculated. The passage of time almost invariably casts a warm (or at least warmer) glow on recent past presidents. Thanks to their good works, Democrats Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have risen in the public's esteem. Even Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace, has gained in opinion surveys.

In Reagan's case, there has been an orchestrated campaign over the past several years by acolytes eager to glorify his image and affix his name to as many public markers - airports, mountains, roads, bridges, buildings - as possible.

But Reagan is also celebrated because he achieved big things, both domestically, where he revived the nation's flagging self-confidence, and abroad, where he helped drive the Soviet Union to extinction.

The Republican Party has obviously changed greatly since Reagan first ran for president in 1968, and even since he left office with a 63 percent approval rating in January 1989. It is hard to imagine a governor with Reagan's record on taxes and abortion faring very well in today's GOP, even if he did repudiate those positions.

Reagan's willingness to compromise has also fallen out of favor in a Republican Party fired up by its give-no-quarter tea party ranks.


"People that pragmatic now are what they call RINOs," said Spencer, using the epithet "Republican in Name Only" that is flung by keepers of the faith at those deemed less than pure.

If, however, the Reagan of real life seems less welcome on Wednesday night's debate stage than the Reagan the candidates are likely to conjure, not every admirer seems as ready to restyle the 40th president to suit today's political fashion.

"You can make someone so iconic and so near divine that you lose the essence of the man," said Craig Shirley, a longtime conservative strategist and Reagan biographer. "If you are faithful and you want to do the man justice, then you have to accept the whole body of knowledge," compromises and all.

"I don't think," Shirley said, "you should cherry-pick history."

What To Read Next
Get Local