Bill O’Reilly’s new book, “Killing Reagan,” has engendered much discussion, especially with his controversial assertion that there was serious discussion of removing President Reagan from office in 1987 because of “mental incapacitation.” Controversial books sell well and Mr. O’Reilly’s platform with Fox News Channel will no doubt guarantee a brisk business for the book.
I was President Reagan’s assistant for political and intergovernmental affairs for the last two years of his term, the time when he was supposedly incapacitated. I attended many presidential meetings and had the opportunity to observe him closely. Frankly, I saw only an extremely hardworking man determined to be relevant right up to his last day in office and fully engaged in the real business of being president. Mr. Reagan was fond of quoting Gov. Al Smith of New York, who said, “Let’s look at the record.” It might be worth reviewing Mr. Reagan’s record of accomplishments around this same time to check Mr. O’Reilly’s thesis.
• Tax reform: Mr. Reagan presided over the last rewrite of the federal tax code, which was finally completed at the end of 1986. Thirty years later, politicians still complain how difficult and complex the task is. Politicians and presidents talk about tax reform, but Mr. Reagan was the last to accomplish it. He made tax reform a major issue in his 1984 re-election and worked at it for two years until success finally came. His plan eliminated credits and deductions, reduced marginal rates to 28 percent, and made the new code revenue-neutral. Then you factor in the supply-side growth in jobs and economic output, which sustained his economic recovery for several more years and made the 1983-90 economy among the strongest in American history. He accomplished this with a Republican Senate and a Democratic House, proving that an involved president can be successful and find common ground with the other party.
•Nuclear weapons: In late 1987, Mr. Reagan negotiated a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union that eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons in Europe. Mr. Reagan had been harshly criticized by Democratic foreign policy “wise men” and Democratic politicians, such as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and former Sens. John Kerry and Joe Biden (remember them?), who lamented that Mr. Reagan was being foolish and naive in seeking such an ambitious goal. Mr. Reagan then persuaded the Senate controlled by Democrats to approve the treaty 93-5. His actions showed respect for the prerogatives of the Senate as he sought consensus that would sustain his actions after he left the presidency.
• Welfare reform: In 1988, a Democratic Congress enacted the Family Support Act, the first federal welfare reform bill to contain a strong work requirement. The bill was a forerunner for the better known and historic legislation of 1996 that finally ended welfare as an entitlement. Mr. Reagan shrewdly worked with governors on this reform, including the moderate Republican Tom Kean of New Jersey and an up-and-coming young Democratic governor named Bill Clinton. The 1988 bill advanced the (then) controversial proposition that welfare should not be a way of life, but rather a program to temporarily help those who lacked job skills.
• Federal spending: Mr. Reagan was not successful in many of his attempts to reform entitlements — save his 1983 deal with House Speaker Tip O’Neill that extended the life of Social Security. However, he did have a major impact on domestic discretionary spending. Through years of pruning and reductions in duplicative and unnecessary federal programs, Mr. Reagan kept a firm hand on that part of the budget, which barely grew in his eight year in office. In 1987, he worked with Sens. Phil Gramm, a Republican, and Ernest Hollings, a Democrat, on legislation that enacted one of the first attempts at budget caps. Later attempts at budget control, including the current sequestration legislation, built on those early efforts.
Each of these measures involved cooperation with Congress, sometimes with a Democratic Senate, always with a Democratic House. Mr. Reagan was often frustrated by Congress, but he respected congressional prerogatives and proved that lasting accomplishments require congressional participation far more than a pen and a phone.
Ronald Reagan remained an effective advocate for enterprise, economic growth and limitations on federal power for all eight years of his presidency. That not spin — it’s just the record.
• Frank J. Donatelli is a former assistant to President Reagan for political and intergovernmental affairs, past deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee and past chairman of GOPAC.