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Ronald Reagan and His Legacy

Since his death in 2004, Ronald Reagan has gained in popularity among the general public each of those seven years.  In 2010 voters in a Discovery Channel poll of the 25 Greatest Americans even made Reagan their number-one pick. Even among historians and academics who have often viewed the Gipper in a lesser light, Reagan has consistently been ranked higher each successive year.

How will he rank in the future? Though it is still too early to say definitively, there is little question that he will ultimately assume a place reserved for a handful of presidents that led in such a way as to transcend party and transient ideologies.

The best measure of Reagan’s lasting power is to compare him with past presidents who are now regarded as great. Most Americans place Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt near the top.  And to those greats, a majority of historians would also add Harry S. Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. So comparing Reagan to these men answers much of the question of how he will be seen a hundred years from now.

Great presidents are capable party leaders. Lincoln earned the Republican Party its place in American politics. Jefferson and Jackson did the same for the Democrats. In the 1930s, Roosevelt rebuilt his party by forging a coalition that delivered five straight presidential victories.

And how does Reagan compare as a party leader? It takes no more than realizing that he rose to leadership in the wake of the Watergate disaster and the legacy of Richard Nixon. He was the first Republican elected to the office of president after Nixon and did much to make people forget the tragedy of the early ‘70s. But he was more than that. Reagan unified Southerners, labor union members, entrepreneurs, and religious conservatives into a powerful bloc that swept the Republicans to three victories in the 1980s. He was so successful in building a true coalition that Republican leaders since have been hard pressed to maintain what he built.

Great presidents are also effectual communicators. Lincoln was the finest speechmaker in American history and will always be remembered for the Gettysburg address. FDR made his fireside chats famous and motivated a nation to believe in his New Deal. Recent times have show making eloquent speech without the aid of a teleprompter does not equate in speaking in a way that motivates a nation. None of the presidents mentioned were simply great orators. When they spoke, people believed what they said.

Ronald Reagan rightfully earned the title the “Great Communicator.”  He never apologized for giving a great speech and even once quipped, “I’ve often wondered how you could be president, and not be an actor.” Though he had cut his teeth in Hollywood, the truth is that Reagan was far more comfortable before a live audience than a movie camera. He could speak off the cuff without fear because he believed what he said and said what he believed.

Another mark of the great presidents was their ability to present a vision of what they wanted government to be under their leadership. Thomas Jefferson hoped to create opportunity for yeoman farmers. Lincoln pledged an end to slavery. Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Truman promised social justice. Woodrow Wilson envisioned eternal peace. And John F. Kennedy made us believe we could put a man on the moon in less than a decade. Though you may not agree with all of their visions, there was no doubt what they envisioned and how they planned on accomplishing it.

Reagan was a leader of intensely clear vision. On the domestic front, he advocated Reaganomics, calling for a reduction in taxes as a means of stimulating the economy. Even when Reaganomics was not a complete success and the national debt soared, he never wavered from his vision. As a result 20 million new jobs were created during his presidency.

Reagan’s vision for foreign policy centered on the Soviet Union.  From day one he assumed a hard line on the Cold War and committed the United States to military buildup. But he was no warmonger; in fact he served as the longest sitting peacetime president in the modern era. He also knew when to soften his stance as the Soviet economy crumbled, giving Mikhail Gorbachev a chance to lead the Soviet Union in a modified direction, conduct a series of summit meetings, see the signing of several arms limitation treaties, and ultimately witness the end of the Cold War.

More than any other factor, what separates the great presidents from the rest is their response to national crises. It’s no coincidence that most presidents on the list of greats — Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman — led the nation to victory in a war. For Reagan, it wasn’t the war his country fought but rather the one he helped avert that seals his place in history. Ironically what his detractors claimed he would cause is what he defused.

Ronald Reagan’ speech at the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987 is a fitting way to let the Great Communicator illustrate why his star continues to rise in the parthenon of great presidents:

We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

A capable party leader, an effective communicator, a leader with vision, and an unwavering responder to national crisis: These qualifications beg the question—can the U.S. political system bring us another great president in our lifetime?

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