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We remember the Reagan years

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 8, 2003

In the nine years since Ronald Reagan wrote his letter to the American people announcing that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the public has received only sporadic updates on his condition. Although he stopped giving speeches in 1994, the occasional photograph of the president – sometimes looking confused, but other times looking much the way he did in the White House, except older, with grayer hair and eyeglasses – was released. Other than that, his wife Nancy carefully guarded his privacy and shielded him from the public eye. This left us to speculate about the extent to which Alzheimer's had ravaged his mind and to devoutly hope that he still had his lucid moments.

PeopleThe Reagans' formerly estranged daughter Patti Davis has now laid these hopes to reset in a moving essay about her father appearing in People magazine. In response to questions about whether he still recognizes her, Davis writes: "It makes me realize that my mother and I have been so protective of his condition since he became ill - almost a decade now - that it has allowed people to imagine he is still talking, still walking, still able to stumble into a moment of clarity. But it would be a disservice to every family who has an Alzheimer's victim in their embrace to say any of that is true, and I don't believe my father would want us to lie."

It's sad to contemplate, really. The man who was leader of the free world from 1981 to 1989, who told Gorbachev to tear down that wall, who survived falls off horses and an assassin's bullet, no longer remembers his own presidency. Or, as best as we can tell, much anything else. He is rarely even awake, confined to a bed and occasionally a wheelchair in a small room of his home.

Many of Reagan's critics seem to believe that the American people are also afflicted with something like Alzheimer's disease, unable to recall the events of the 1980s or our 40th president's administration. This is why they thought they could successfully paint a picture of Reagan as a spiteful man who cursed at those who worked for them and thought the victims of AIDS deserved their painful deaths, and then broadcast portrait into our homes on national television without anyone protesting.

But they were wrong. Supporters of Ronald Reagan were mobilized like it was 1980 all over again. They wrote letters and made phone calls protesting CBS' inclination to broadcast slurs against a decent, patriotic American. The series became the talk of the op-ed pages, call-in talk radio and the political corner of the web. The Republican National Committee lodged a formal protest against the ahistorical aspects of the program.

Reagan, is shown in his office in the Century City section of Los Angeles in this Feb. 5, 1990 photo
Reagan, is shown in his office in the Century City section of Los Angeles in this Feb. 5, 1990 photo

The Reagan regiments prevailed once again. CBS exiled "The Reagans" to Showtime, where it made it did little more than dent the consciousness of a few political junkies with cable. Even Nancy Reagan is said to have forgotten how beloved her husband was. The vast outcry against "The Reagans" was, if nothing else, a poignant reminder.

Historians are not the only ones who bicker endlessly over the achievements of past presidents. At least in the decades immediately following their service, so do partisans. But this isn't simply a matter of hero worship or the advantage of one political party. The ideas and policies of one presidency, and how the impact of those ideas and policies are evaluated, have an unmistakable influence on the future direction of the country.

Had Reagan's tax cuts truly ignited even worse inflation than occurred during the dark days of stagflation, as the reigning Keynesian economists and many liberal pundits then predicted, it is doubtful that George W. Bush would have contemplated across-the-board cuts in marginal income tax rates as he was ramping up his bid for the presidency in 1999 and 2000. All nine of the major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are for their part banking that economic prosperity can best be guaranteed by maximizing tax revenues, even if it requires higher rates, in order to reduce the deficit and interest rates. This precedent for this policy is found in Bill Clinton's administration, and it is exactly what Clinton and his Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin credit for the economic growth under their watch in the 1990s.

A decade or so ago, I was attending a fundraiser for a Republican candidate for the state legislature in my hometown. The GOP had pulled out all the stops to win this race; not only were William Weld and Paul Cellucci (then governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, respectively, in attendance but so was then Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour (soon to be governor of Mississippi). I remember cornering Barbour during this event and asking him why the GOP didn't do more to defend Reagan's record from liberal misrepresentation.

"I was just on Jerry Williams' talk show talking about Reagan's record of 20 million new jobs and the longest peacetime economic expansion in history," Barbour drawled as he grabbed jellybeans out of a bowl on a nearby table and stuffed them into his mouth. "We do talk about Reagan's record, but the media won't report it."

But the message has been getting out and it matters. Peter Robinson has written an account of what an enriching experience his service as a speechwriter in the Reagan administration was in How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. Another eminent Reagan-era scribe has sounded similar themes about the former president's moral example in When Character Was King. Peter Schweizer's Reagan's War tells the story of how Reagan's policies helped hasten the collapse of international communism. Robert Bartley's Seven Fat Years remains the definitive retelling of how the supply-side revolution touched off unprecedented economic growth that raised living standards for millions. Finally, there has been the publication of Reagan's own writings in Reagan, In His Own Hand and Reagan: A Life In Letters that challenge the "amiable dunce" myth and offer a window into the president's thoughts and values.

In the final analysis, Reagan's legacy is not simply about one man. It is about what he believed in: The capacity of American strength to accomplish good, the importance of limits on government, the vitality of the free market as our vehicle for economic progress and the importance of bedrock traditional values to our nation. These issues continue to be at the heart of our political debates today.

Nancy Reagan told an interviewer last year that Alzheimer's disease tragically robbed her of her ability to share memories with her husband in their golden years, because she is the only one who remembers them. It would similarly be a tragedy if the memories of Reagan's accomplishments and values were lost, if the country as a whole had forgotten the lessons of his presidency as thoroughly as his critics. But here there are many people to share these memories with, many who would preserve Reagan's legacy. We remember. And we will not soon forget.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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