- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Democrats have ranged from circumspect to effusive in their praise of Ronald Reagan since the former president’s death Saturday, but they were often dismissive at best of the “Great Communicator” while he was president.

Former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. once called Mr. Reagan “the least knowledgeable of any president I’ve ever met, on any subject. He works by three-by-five cards.”

Mr. Reagan was judged by many Democrats as in over his head — an “amiable dunce,” as Democratic power broker Clark Clifford famously described him.

In the tributes that have poured forth since he died Saturday of pneumonia at 93, just about every Democrat has praised him for his amiable nature. Left unsaid is that many of them regarded him as a dunce — or worse.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who announced this weekend he was suspending his presidential campaign for several days to honor Mr. Reagan, less than a year ago used the former president as the symbol of what Democrats should oppose.

“My life history is I fought Reagan, fought Nixon, fought the war in Vietnam, fought their struggle against civil rights. I fought for civil rights, and I fought against their tax cuts for the wealthy,” Mr. Kerry told the Miami Herald last year as he was running in the Democratic primary.

This weekend though, Mr. Kerry praised Mr. Reagan for his fighting spirit and for rising above partisanship.

“Even when he was breaking Democrats’ hearts, he did so with a smile and in the spirit of honest and open debate,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement. “Despite the disagreements, he lived by that noble ideal that at 5 p.m. we weren’t Democrats or Republicans, we were Americans and friends.”

And speaking to Bedford High School graduates in Toledo, Ohio, Mr. Kerry said Mr. Reagan “spoke for our country, for the eternal cause of liberty, and most of all for the millions imprisoned behind [the Berlin] Wall.”

When he ran for president in 1980, Democrats called him a “cowboy” and “warmonger” who would cause World War III.

In the past few days, though, the plaudits have rolled in for Mr. Reagan, with nearly universal recognition that he faced down the Soviet Union and for the way he conducted politics.

Some Democrats tried to make the argument Mr. Reagan was never as conservative as believed.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank formed by former President Clinton’s Chief of Staff John Podesta, said after his initial income-tax cut Mr. Reagan approved tax increases almost every other year of his presidency, and contrasted Mr. Reagan’s engagement with allies to win the Cold War with President Bush’s efforts against Iraq.

But most Democrats have been content to say though they fought Mr. Reagan, he earned their respect.

“Reagan represented the best of civility in American politics and the finest traditions of standing up nobly for what you believe in,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said.

Still, Mr. Reagan’s policies were a target long after he left office, becoming the bogeyman for Mr. Clinton in 1992, when the then-candidate pegged the 1980s as the Decade of Greed and said, “Together, we must bring an end to the something-for-nothing ethic of the 1980s.”

But this weekend, Mr. Clinton said Mr. Reagan as president symbolized the American spirit.

“Hillary and I will always remember President Ronald Reagan for the way he personified the indomitable optimism of the American people and for keeping America at the forefront of the fight for freedom for people everywhere,” Mr. Clinton said.

Massachusetts Democrats, in particular, seemed to enjoy critiquing Mr. Reagan. In addition to Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Kerry, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was a frequent grappler with the Gipper, accusing him of “indifference” to domestic problems and “secret wars and saber-rattling” overseas.

In 1986, he said that Mr. Reagan, by refusing to impose sanctions against South Africa, had put the United States on the side of apartheid.

“Our greatest Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, called America the last best hope of Earth. But under Ronald Reagan, America has become the last best friend of apartheid,” he said.

But if Mr. Kennedy, who in 1980 challenged President Carter in the Democratic primary, was among Mr. Reagan’s harshest critics, he was generous in his heartfelt praise this weekend.

He even compared Mr. Reagan’s challenge that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall” to the “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech made by his brother, President Kennedy.

He also had a healthy respect for what Mr. Reagan did to restore the office of president to a central role in national policy-making.

“We often disagreed on issues of the day, but I had immense respect and admiration for his leadership and his extraordinary ability to inspire the nation to live up to its high ideals,” Mr. Kennedy said.



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