August 18, 2014


Ronald Reagan Steals the Show (Cass R. Sunstein, 8/06/14, Bloomberg View)

[W]hen discussing Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Perlstein writes in fetters. As soon as Reagan appears, the author is at liberty, and his prose soars.

Perlstein reminds us that as the terrible events of Watergate unfolded, Reagan was Nixon's most consistent defender. Were the Democrats upset that Nixon had bugged their offices? "They should be happy that somebody was willing to listen to them," Reagan quipped.

In Reagan's view, Nixon was "a truthful man." Informed that he himself had been taped when he visited the Oval Office, Reagan answered that the tapes probably "made me sound good." Even after Nixon resigned, Reagan saw the bright side, suggesting that when Americans started to "calm down a bit," they would "take pride" that the system had succeeded in rooting out the few bad apples.

Reagan combined an unflappable optimism about the future with a deep faith in the nation's traditions and institutions. A college acquaintance doubted that he was "intelligent enough to be cynical" -- a revealing mistake. Reagan's lack of cynicism was real enough, but it was a product of emotional commitment, not of any deficit in intelligence. In the words of his son Ron, "He made a lot of stuff up but could pass a lie detector test."

Reagan catapulted to national political prominence in large part because of his aggressive stand against Berkeley's student protestors in the 1960s. In his words, "I'd like to harness their youthful energy with a strap." His political advisers, consulting sophisticated public opinion research, told him not to make an issue of campus militancy; he ignored them. He had cherished his own experience at Eureka College and, as governor, promised he would tell students to "obey the rules or get out."

That moral clarity, offered with firmness and good cheer, defined Reagan's political life. 

Carter, Nixon and Ford were small men.  Reagan was a big man.
Posted by at August 18, 2014 2:36 PM

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