As the nation marks Ronald Reagan's 92nd birthday on February 6, it is worth noting that a subtle revision of Reagan's reputation is taking place among the nation's intellectual elite. Reagan's deepening popularity with Americans and his success in office are now too overwhelming to be denied. One-by-one, the stock criticisms made of Reagan throughout his career are falling by the wayside.
One sign of the times is the December issue of Esquire magazine, which named Reagan "the greatest living American." This is notable because Esquire published numerous anti-Reagan articles in the 1970s and 1980s, including one by Richard Reeves in 1979 entitled "Why Reagan Won't Make It." Today, Reeves is at work on a book explaining why Reagan did make it. In 1979 Reeves dismissed Reagan, saying "Reagan seems to be a nostalgia figure whose time has passed; he looks like the past, he talks about the past." But now it is liberals like Reeves who are sputtering about the past and trying to explain why Reagan's legacy dominates the present, so much so that the New York Times' Bill Keller recently wrote that the George W. Bush administration can be said to represent Ronald Reagan's third term.
We'll have to wait some years before we know how Reeves will handle this embarrassing problem, but a clue comes from a recent article in the Washington Monthly that claims Reagan succeeded because he was a liberal! In "Reagan's Liberal Legacy" Joshua Green lays out the argument that "many of his actions as president wound up facilitating liberal objectives." Look: Reagan acceded to tax increases, oversaw a large increase in the size of the federal government, and made peace with the Soviet Union.
To be sure, many conservatives at the time angrily criticized Reagan for some of these tergiversations from purist conservative policy, though both the conservative criticism of the time and today's liberal larceny of the Reagan legacy ignore both the particular details and the general context of Reagan's actions. The growth of government under Reagan taught conservatives a bitter lesson about the momentum of the administrative state, though as a thought experiment people should ask themselves how much more the government would have grown had there been a second term for Jimmy Carter. While Reagan acceded to tax increases, he drew the line against raising marginal income tax ratesthe key tenet of supply side economics and hence the central battleground of today's tax policy battles. He did indeed make peace with the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union was about to become defunct under Reagan's relentless pressurepressure the liberals opposed every step of the way.
More comical is the way liberals now acknowledge Reagan as a deep thinker as a back door way of attacking George W. Bush. The Times' Keller wrote: "Reagan has been enjoying an intellectual rehabilitation. The publication in 2001 of Reagan's original, handwritten scripts for radio homilies he delivered caused many skeptics to concede that he was a better writer and thinker than most had generally imagined." Unlike you-know-who in the White House now. Keller adds: "Reagan's principles were developed over decades and fortified by a selective but extensive reading of history. [Reagan had] studied, lifelong convictions [and] arrived at the Oval Office pretty much a finished product." What happened to the charge that Reagan's only reading was Human Events and Reader's Digest? That he was helpless without his three-by-five cards, and was a creation of his handlers?
It has been a cliche for almost three decades now that Reagan has exceeded expectations, and his becoming the oldest living ex-president in our history is another such occasion. Shortly after Reagan's landslide election to the presidency in 1980, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company produced a study of the effect of the presidency on life expectancy, finding that being president shortens a person's life expectancy nearly as much as cigarette smoking. On average, being president reduced life expectancy by 3.9 years (or 5.2 years among 20th century presidents). Reagan, Met Life projected, could expect to live only another 11 years, to 1992.
That's another one for the Reagan "underestimation" archive, which is large enough to be an encyclopedia. Happy birthday Mr. President.