LAMBRO: Conversations with Reagan

Memories of the modern era’s best president

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Barack Obama was named the worst president since World War II, in a survey of the American people, who were asked to rate the nation’s chief executives over the past 69 years.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that one-third of its respondents picked President Obama as the all-time worst, ahead of George W. Bush in its disapproval.

Mr. Obama’s unpopularity will come as no surprise to those who’ve been closely following his big-spending presidency. The really big news, though, was the man who topped the best presidency list: Ronald Reagan.

Reagan championed entrepreneurial capitalism, cut taxes, expanded free trade agreements and U.S. exports, promoted energy development, fought wasteful federal spending, beefed up our defense, began development of an anti-missile shield, ended a recession in two years, accelerated economic growth, and fueled job creation and new business formation.

He restored America’s can-do spirit of optimism about the future.

Mr. Obama has devoted his presidency to raising taxes, beating up big business, playing class warfare, growing the government, stalling trade deals, cutting defense, and prolonging a recession in an economy that remains stuck in a slow-growth recovery and with a declining labor force.

Of all of the presidencies I have covered in the past 40 years, I got to know Reagan best on a personal and professional level, from the campaign trail to the Oval Office.

We first met several times in Washington at his room in the Madison Hotel, where we talked about politics, budgets and a wide assortment of other issues for an hour or so.

Reagan had completed two successful terms as the governor of the largest state in the union and had his eyes on the White House. Vice President Gerald R. Ford had just become president, after Richard Nixon resigned, and had began plotting his 1976 campaign for election in his own right.

Reagan, who started campaigning across the country, was planning to challenge Ford for the nomination. In that first interview, he began calling for a more aggressive approach to dealing with the nation’s problems.

This was no time for “pale pastels,” Reagan said. This was a time for bold policies that called for cutting spending and going after wasteful or needless programs. Now was the time to unleash the power of the American economy that was being held back by job-killing taxation and costly government regulations.

At this time, Reagan was being all but ignored by the national news media. I was Washington correspondent for United Press International, looking for a story and beating my competitors, and I always asked if he had any other interviews on his schedule while he was in town. No, he’d reply. “Just you.”

The Washington Post, by the way, was across the street from the Madison. Their reporters dismissed the former governor as just a kooky, right-wing politician who had little chance of defeating Ford for the nomination or becoming president.

One of the political rules Reagan had long embraced was to “never speak ill of a fellow Republican.” During his campaign for the nomination, he refused to criticize Ford.

That vow ended in an interview I had with him as we were flying into Los Angeles after a week of campaigning. Ford was running blistering TV attack ads against Reagan, charging he would get the country into a war.

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