[Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. ]
So far, it seems that the most popular politician in the 2008 presidential campaign is the late Ronald Reagan, who last ran for office 24 years ago. The Republican candidates invoke “President Reagan” far more frequently and adoringly than they mention the current incumbent, and even the Democratic Senator Barack Obama has gotten into the act. Obama recently elbowed Hillary Clinton by mocking Bill Clinton’s presidential legacy. Showing that he uses the same charming grin and upbeat cadence to deliver good news and hard body blows, the Democrats’ wonder boy observed that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” It seems that conservative Republicans have forgotten how often he frustrated them, and Democrats have forgotten how much they despised him.
In 1989, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan waved goodbye to the American people, few would have predicted this Reagan revival. In truth, Reagan’s poll ratings throughout the 1980s fluctuated far more than even most Americans realized at the time. And by the end of Reagan’s two terms, even though many had great affection for him, many were also fed up with Reagan’s inattention to detail, his squabbling official and real families, and the various disasters on his watch, most notably the Iran-contra scandal, the huge budget deficits, the 1987 stock market crash, and the growing epidemic of materialism and selfishness in America. Similarly, conservatives were torn between worshiping Reagan the man and grumbling about his record which was more moderate than they had hoped, having failed to end the era of big government.
Ronald Reagan’s legacy has been resurrected thanks, mostly, to his three successors: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Initially, George H.W. Bush, earned press and public acclaim by distancing himself from Reagan. Bush appeared as the real Reagan, the guy who actually was a war hero, attended church, and raised a model family, rather than simply talking about it. President Bush emphasized his longer hours and his hands-on management, triggering respectful portraits of him as a functional chief executive. As the new president’s stock climbed, the old president’s lagged.
Eventually, however, President Bush stumbled in areas where President Reagan excelled. As the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet republics demanded their freedom, Bush behaved cautiously, fearing that if he gloated too much he would trigger a Soviet crackdown. As a result, even though the Communist grip on Eastern Europe loosened under Bush’s watch, President Reagan earned more historical credit, for having launched the process, and shaping it with dramatic moments. Bush could not match Reagan’s June, 1987 call at the Berlin Wall to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” More broadly, Bush’s awkwardness with what he mocked as “the vision thing” made Americans pine for Reagan’s poetry. And when Bush broke his famous “read my lips, no new taxes” promise, he infuriated conservatives and undermined his standing as a man of integrity.
Bill Clinton’s presidency further boosted Reagan’s reputation. With Clinton, a Democrat, becoming the prince of peace and prosperity, finding a “Third Way,” celebrating that the “era of big government is over,” it was harder for Democrats to criticize Reagan for selfishness, materialism, or budget-cutting. Moreover, the Clinton-era boom made the Reagan-era deficits appear insignificant relative to the size of America’s economy, making Reagan’s economic decisions seem visionary. Finally, the contrast between Ronald Reagan’s old-fashioned respect for the White House – reputedly, he never removed his suit jacket when he was in the Oval Office – and Bill Clinton’s anything-goes adolescent behavior, even in the president’s inner sanctum, made Americans nostalgic for Reagan’s presence, and values.
The final step in the Reagan revival has occurred thanks to George W. Bush. Many Democrats despise this President Bush so deeply they often try to prove their enmity is not partisan by claiming they didn’t hate Reagan that intensely. Many forget the constant predictions that Reagan would outlaw abortion, restore racism, stop the feminist revolution, impoverish America, and lead the world into nuclear holocaust. Moreover, as Reagan aged so tragically, as his wife Nancy handled his Alzheimer’s disease so gracefully, the angers of the 1980s faded. By the time Reagan died in 2004, and thanks to a carefully choreographed funeral in Washington and California, conservatives remembered him as their modern-day George Washington, who launched their revolution; liberals grudgingly acknowledged, as Barack Obama did, that, as the man who was in the right place at the right time, he won the Cold War, restored America’s confidence, and became a transformational leader, unlike his immediate predecessors and successors.
While George W. Bush should not bank on watching his historical legacy rebound as quickly or as magically, the Reagan resurrection does teach essential lessons as we watch the presidential campaign. America is such a multi-dimensional country. The presidency is such an impossible job. History is such a fluid arbiter. As a result, the choices that voters make, while incredibly important and often epoch-making, are also difficult judgment calls which take years to evaluate properly or authoritatively. In fact, we historians make whatever business we do off of the continuing conversation about who accomplished what to make this nation great – or make it stumble.