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PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP: 15 DECISIONS THAT CHANGED THE NATION
By Nick Ragone
Prometheus Books, $25, 332 pages

Some of the early presidential decisions discussed here may be little remembered, perhaps for good reason. George Washington’s decision to put down the Whiskey Rebellion is, no doubt, as Nick Ragone writes in “Presidential Leadership,” an early landmark in the struggle between states’ rights and federal power - a struggle he then traces through Thomas Jefferson approving the Louisiana Purchase, Andrew Jackson rejecting nullification and Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation.

But no matter how you frame it, the picture of George Washington as revenuer in chief, donning his old uniform to lead troops against a ragged band of tax-resisting, moonshining farmers, is singularly unappealing.

Of the next grouping of decisions - Theodore Roosevelt building the Panama Canal, Woodrow Wilson creating the League of Nations, FDR passing Lend-Lease, Harry Truman deciding to drop the atomic bomb - most of the ground, with the exception of Lend-Lease, has been well plowed. Or, in the case of the Panama Canal, the interest in the details of its construction has naturally diminished over the years.

It’s when he comes to his final grouping - Lyndon Johnson and civil rights, Richard Nixon visiting China, Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech - that Mr. Ragone, a respected reporter, commentator and author, brings his skills fully to bear, especially in his treatments of Presidents Nixon and Reagan.

True, he feels compelled to issue the obligatory disclaimer: “Just because there is a chapter on Nixon and China doesn’t mean I believe Nixon was a great president.”

But in fact, despite several such disclaimers, the aspect of the Nixon presidency he chooses to deal with proves just that. The trip to China was a geopolitical masterstroke, making possible the successful end to the war he inherited in Vietnam, creating cracks in the Cold War structure and causing a distinct shift in the balance of global power away from Soviet interests.

“As a diplomatic feat,” Mr. Ragone concludes, “[the China trip] certainly has no rival in the [20th] century - perhaps in American history. It required endless patience, broad vision, a mastery of the subject matter, a natural gift for negotiation. Put another way, it is difficult to overstate its significance.”

Nixon’s trip to China activated the tectonic forces that shook the foundations of what Reagan would famously call the “evil empire” in a speech to a group of religious broadcasters. The speech, which would cause a great outpouring of intellectual establishment angst, and written by Tony Dolan, was not intended as a major foreign-policy address.

Mr. Ragone quotes Aram Bakshian, at the time Reagan’s director of presidential speechwriting: “If anyone in the State Department read it, they just read the first few paragraphs and set it aside. They didn’t know it was going to be a foreign-policy speech. On the face of it, it wasn’t a foreign-policy speech.”

But it would have great foreign-policy repercussions. Among American liberals, reports Mr. Ragone, the reaction was vehement. Henry Steele Commager called it “the worst presidential speech in American history.” New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis found it “primitive” and “outrageous”; the New Republic saw in it a call to “holy war - something a president should not say.” But in the Soviet Union, Mr. Ragone writes, the reaction was quite different. Said Vladimir Bukovsky: “His phrase ‘evil empire’ became a household word in Russia.” Natan Sharansky added, “Finally, the leader of the Free World had spoken the truth.”

Concludes Mr. Ragone: “As for the speech itself, it was only that. But in a flash, it had perfectly captured what Reagan believed was the metaphysical essence of the Cold War - good versus evil. Never again could the United States and the Soviet Union be considered moral equivalents. He had succeeded in branding it evil.”

And by so doing, as Mr. Ragone points out, by deciding to use those two words, Reagan helped redirect the course of history.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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