Understanding Reagan’s Teflon Touch

He was a popular GOP candidate, leader, and president – often curiously at odds with the nation’s governing elites, including even the vast Republican Party establishment which eventually adopted him, though never quite completely. Yet, he developed a remarkable bond with the American people that tended to shroud him in a blanket of seemingly magical “Teflon,” that his adversaries in both parties could never seem to fully understand.

last_actBefore he was elected president in 1980, one of the big raps against him was that behind an amiable front, he was really little more than an uninformed knee-jerk bumpkin of the Neanderthal right, unfit to be near the nuclear codes, ready to plunge the nation into war at the drop of a hat. Seven days after his inauguration at the height of the Cold War, his adversaries’ worst fears were all but confirmed when he broke all the usual rules of diplomatic niceties by publicly describing Soviet leaders as a bunch of immoral liars and cheaters hell-bent on world domination. Nobody should be allowed to say such impolite things on the presidential stage. It would be “temperamentally” gauche, to say the least. So said the really smart people of the day. On the nightly news, the wise serious-minded commentators of the foreign policy elites all said the new president had made one of the worst gaffes ever… and surely something close to World War III in U.S.-Soviet relations would be soon to follow.

But in the longer light of history, they underestimated Ronald Reagan. A decade later, statues were being erected to the man in the streets of the newly freed Eastern bloc cities of Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, the Berlin Wall had been Reaganesquely “torn down,” the Soviet Union dissolved, and Margaret Thatcher was pronouncing to the world a fitting epitaph of sorts to his eight-year presidency, memorably saying he had almost singlehandedly ended the Cold War “without firing a shot.”

Of course, popular understanding of the real Reagan legacy will continue to be a work in progress for many years to come. Yet, a largely positive narrative about it has appeared to gel more quickly in historical terms than some might have thought possible, especially considering the level of political vilification which had been heaped on him by so many over the course of his presidency and in the years since. In addition, Reagan, after leaving office in January 1989, did very little in a personal proactive way to try to mold or re-shape is own legacy, even at one point declaiming any real interest in doing so, saying he was content to let history be the judge of what he did or didn’t do.

By late 1994, when Reagan poignantly informed the American people of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he had largely withdrawn from public life where he remained through his death on June 5, 2004 at age 93. Meanwhile, the publication of two books in 2001 and 2003 – prolific collections of Reagan’s pre-presidential hand-written radio addresses and personal letters, edited by Marty and Annelise Anderson and Kiron Skinner, convincingly illustrated to a much wider audience an erudite and thoughtful side to Reagan that added significantly to the more positive perceptions of the man and his legacy.

Reagan biographer Craig Shirley delves into the subject of Reagan’s post-presidential years and his place in history in his recent book, Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan. The author of two earlier books covering Reagan’s presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980, Shirley is an unabashed Reagan admirer. He is also a deft researcher and reporter who clearly documents and describes significant parts of the overall Reagan story with a knack for detail and bringing the reader up close with contemporaneous events.

Shirley chronicles many public and private stories and happenings surrounding the week-long official public mourning and funeral following Reagan’s passing, and uses it as backdrop to highlight the cultural divides that continue to surround the Reagan legacy and by extension our nation’s current politics. In so doing, he provides cogent analysis of the broader Reagan story, including the ongoing tug-of-war between Reagan’s ardent detractors (mostly contained among the nation’s political, media and academic elites) and his most devoted admirers (concentrated among those who had been part of his extended political team) as well as so many ordinary Americans and others who had simply bonded with him in a special way over the years.

Part of the origins and strength of that bond with the American people no doubt trace back to the assassination attempt in 1981, when Reagan’s self-deprecating humor and grace under life-and-death pressure elicited, in a unique way, a measure of the man to which ordinary people could immediately relate. Shirley recounts how so many years later, Reagan staffers in the Washington DC funeral motorcade en route to Andrews Air Force Base, traveling through some of the area’s poorer Democratic neighborhoods, were emotionally overwhelmed by the spontaneous outpouring of ordinary people lining the streets with patriotic displays of genuine affection and respect for Reagan that otherwise might have seemed quite improbable.

The renowned Russian writer and Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom Reagan admired, said he saw Reagan as a man of “greatness,” but just as importantly as a man who evoked the “heart” and “soul” of the American people, “the breadth and depth of the American homeland.”

It is the very same quiet sentiment that continues to animate the enduring comradery, captured so succinctly in this book, that binds together those that Reagan described in his Farewell Address to the Nation as “the men and women of the Reagan Revolution,” the Reagan alumni who worked on his campaigns, served in his administration, and helped him in his final journey in life and in death. With each passing year, they seem to know more clearly that because of Reagan, they were a part of something special … and with him continue to maintain the faith – despite any passing appearances to the contrary – that because of the innate strength, goodness and wisdom of the American people, there will always be that “bright dawn ahead.”

Gary Hoitsma served as special assistant to Ray Barnhart during Barnhart’s tenure as Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, under President Ronald Reagan and is a former aide to U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK). Mr. Hoitsma is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.