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Ronald Reagan’s enduring legacy
Historians and contemporaries measure his impact
From the granite facade of Mount Rushmore to road signs and school buildings in communities across the country, the push is going strong to enshrine Ronald Reagan’s legacy in stone and steel — a fitting tribute, admirers say, to the man who ended communism in Europe and turned the political debate from Roosevelt’s New Deal to supply-side economics or, more simply, Reaganism.
More than two decades after he left office, the 40th president, whose 525 electoral votes in 1984 are an all-time record, is a hot topic for historians, who debate his place among the top chief executives of all time, and for lawmakers, who still spar over who best lays claim to his legacy.
“There is a growing sense that we need to reckon with Reagan, reckon with his legacy to understand the broad political culture over the past three decades,” said Matthew Dallek, a historian who has written about Reagan’s 1966 campaign for California governor. “His presidency and the movement he led and his ideas really matter.”
During Reagan’s eight years in office, inflation fell from its staggering late-1970s peak, relations with the Soviet Union thawed, the unemployment rate fell and incomes rose. But measured by other standards, income inequality grew and federal spending ballooned. Historians still debate how much credit Reagan should get for his management of foreign relations.
“The last century, I believe, he would go down as the most effective president,” said former Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who in the 1990s sponsored legislation trying to get Reagan’s face carved onto Mount Rushmore beside those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. “He certainly goes down as [among] a handful of presidents who have shaped this nation’s future.”
Some presidents belong to the historians — the debates over John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt have passed from the politicians to the academics — and others, such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, remain firmly rooted in the political zeitgeist, picked apart in Congress and on talk shows.
Reagan, however, is claimed by historians and present-day politicians alike — as the proliferation of biographies and the ongoing debates in political weeklies attests.
It’s one of the ironies that the historians tend to focus on Reagan’s shortcomings and failures to live up to his rhetoric, while average Americans instead remember the sunny outlook and the bold rhetoric.
“If you look at the specifics of his agenda — cutting federal spending — well, he didn’t. … He readjusted [taxes] somewhat, but total federal tax takes were the same when he left office as when he came in,” said Michael Schaller, a professor at the University of Arizona who has just published a book, “Ronald Reagan.” “Somehow those details are forgotten, and what we tend to remember is the ceremonial president who tends to evoke a sense of pride and can-do spirit.”
“Parts of him have aged very well — the Reagan image. Even I, who disagreed with almost all the substance of his policies, have come to have a higher regard for his skills. I think those will last, you can’t deny them,” Mr. Schaller said. “The public Reagan is probably here to stay, like the public FDR, the public Teddy Roosevelt. That’s pretty well enshrined now. I think the substance of the policy is still much contested.”
Perhaps it’s because Reagan is still within the purview of present-day and historical debate that efforts to enshrine him have not been mammoth successes. His backers are trying to change that.
“We aren’t past the number of things that ought to be named after Reagan. We have a ways to go,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and chairman of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, whose goal is to have something named after Reagan in every one of the country’s 3,140 counties.
Mr. Norquist said 600 to 800 public works are named after Kennedy and civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr., and reaching those levels is his group’s next milestone. As of mid-January, members counted 107 Reagan listings.
“There are 100,000 teaching moments that flow from these things,” Mr. Norquist said. “Somebody who’s got something named after him is important.”
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About the Author
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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