The Best of Him
How Ronald Reagan changed America.
John Fund on Ronald Reagan
Tuesday, February 6, 2001 12:01 a.m. EST
The two transcendent political figures of the past quarter century are Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both two-term presidents. We are only starting to digest Mr. Clinton's legacy and no doubt we'll gradually learn more of what happened behind the scenes. But we are already in the midst of a full reappraisal of Ronald Reagan as he marks his 90th birthday today. A dozen years after he flew into the California sunset on what had been Air Force One, Mr. Reagan still has a profound influence on our politics and national character.
He entered office proposing a supply-side tax cut that was deemed "dead on arrival" in Congress and wound up not only passing it but ushering in eight years of sustained economic growth. Now a new president, George W. Bush, is proposing a similar tax cut — and is likewise overcoming initial skepticism.
Other Reagan initiatives — from a missile-defense system to a free-trade zone encompassing the entire Western Hemisphere — are on the front burner of Bush initiatives. Few any longer disagree that Mr. Reagan deserves much credit for ending the Cold War and inspiring Americans to greater morale and optimism.
A new book from the Free Press, "Reagan In His Own Hand," has unearthed Mr. Reagan's handwritten prepresidential writings and makes a strong case that he was a supple and subtle writer. Michael Barone, co-author of the Almanac of American Politics, says the book "shows that he was a voracious reader, a persuasive logician and a graceful writer. And it shows, if there is still reason to doubt it, that he did his own thinking."
Mr. Reagan also had a profound impact on thousands of people now active in politics or public service. He inspired countless elected officials to run for office. "The Great Communicator" impressed upon me the power of the written and spoken word. While he was governor of California, I will never forget his taking time out of his schedule after a television taping to show me — a mere 15-year-old high school student — how he could instantly arrange his packs of anecdote-filled 3-by-5 index cards into a speech tailor-made for almost any audience.
Those index cards also played a major role in changing the life of Jim Rogan, who was elected to Congress as a Republican in 1996 from Pasadena and became a House impeachment manager. Defeated for re-election last November in a demographically changing district, Mr. Rogan is now a top candidate for a post in a Bush Justice Department. Last year, he told me of the impact Mr. Reagan had on his career.
Jim Rogan grew up on the wrong side of the tracks near San Francisco. His mother, a felon, was often on welfare. His stepfather was an alcoholic. He found escape in his collection of political memorabilia. In 1970 Gov. Reagan was giving a speech to a GOP audience in Walnut Creek. Mr. Rogan, then 12, and a friend waited outside the hall for the governor to leave.
Mr. Reagan and his entourage swept by and actually got into their cars and started to drive away. But then the governor noticed a young boy's sad face and ordered the car to stop. He asked him what he wanted, and young Jim Rogan said he wanted more than anything in the world to have something for his political collection. Reagan said his staff would disapprove, but he nonetheless would give him the eight 3-by-5 handwritten index cards he had just used to deliver his speech.
Mr. Rogan subsequently dropped out of high school and supported himself with jobs ranging from bartender to bouncer at an adult-movie theater. But he worked his way through the University of California at Berkeley and then won admission to UCLA Law School. As he began his third year of law school, he was broke and on the verge of quitting. Then he remembered the Reagan index cards he had stashed away.
Mr. Reagan had just become president and the cards were suddenly valuable. Torn between wanting to keep a prized possession and his desire to finish law school, he reluctantly sold cards two through eight to a collector for $1,500. With that money he finished law school, and went on to become a deputy district attorney, then a lead prosecutor of the Hard Core Gang Unit and, at 33, the youngest municipal court judge in the state.
At 35, he was elected to the state Assembly where he quickly became the first Republican majority leader of that body in a quarter-century. He was elected to Congress at 39. "All of that flowed from being blessed with having those valuable index cards from Ronald Reagan when I really needed them."
Just before Mr. Rogan undertook his duties as a House impeachment manager, he was leafing through a political-memorabilia catalog and saw his old set of index cards for sale. He snapped them up and remembers how his hands trembled when he opened the package containing them. "The irony is that the fellow I sold them to had taken much better care of them during the intervening 17 years than I had of the one card I had kept," he says. He has since donated the cards to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. where Mark Burson, the library's executive director, says they will eventually go on display.
To visit that library, where I was privileged to give the Reagan Lecture last year, is to realize all over again how much impact Mr. Reagan continues to make. Mr. Reagan's success made it harder to paint future conservative presidential candidates — including George W. Bush — as ignorant or scary.
Mr. Reagan was always very modest about his own accomplishments. He kept a sign on his desk every day he was both governor and president: "There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."
Characteristically, Mr. Reagan ended his presidential farewell address by saying he had wanted to inspire the American people "to change the country" but they instead "ended up changing the world." And how did he do? "Not bad. Not bad at all."
In the years since he left public life, both citizens and historians have come to see how significant his accomplishments really were. We are only now — as the Clinton administration gives way to a new Bush administration — fully appreciating those Reagan qualities that were "the best of him."