Fireside Chat: Grasping the Gipper

In the July/August issue of The National Interest Jacob Heilbrunn

Ronald Reagan's legacy in a review of four new books about the fortieth president.

The cover of the new issue of The National Interest features a photo of Ronald Reagan, wearing a cowboy hat and his trademark smile, beaming with the indefatigable optimism he brought to the presidency. Touring Reagan's presidential library in Simi Valley, it's difficult to avoid that optimism rubbing off on you.

The library rests on a hilltop, with a serene panoramic view that seems light years away from the gridlock and smog of downtown Los Angeles, just forty minutes to the southeast. The outside grounds house a piece of the Berlin Wall and a fighter jet, coupling Reagan's pursuit of peace and military strength. The museum displays the Air Force One that flew the skies from 1973 to 2001, under which this round of Republican presidential candidates debated for the first time on May 3, incessantly invoking Reagan's name and legacy.

In the July/August issue of The National Interest Jacob Heilbrunn tackles the Gipper's legacy in a review of four new books about the man who famously told Gorbachev to "tear this wall down." Neoconservatives, realists and even liberals claim Reagan as their own. While this adulation would no doubt flatter the fortieth president, as Heilbrunn writes, one-dimensional assessments of this actor who performed on the world's greatest stage are inaccurate. Sean Singer of The National Interest recently spoke with Heilbrunn and discussed Reagan's life, policies and relevance today.

Why is Reagan nostalgia so popular?

It's because George W. Bush's presidency is perceived as a failure, so there is an understandable impulse to reach back to the last great hero of the GOP who was a revered president. And Reagan's record looks increasingly more substantial the worse George W. Bush's appears.

The books you reviewed came from a variety of authors with different ideological backgrounds. Nonetheless, what are some of the common themes that struck you?

Reagan was very much an individualist. [Because of] his family-with the father who's an alcoholic, the mother deeply religious, but obviously somewhat frustrated because she wanted to become a well-known actress-Ronald Reagan in many ways became part of what his mother had hoped to become: someone who occupied a prominent place on the stage. So I think Reagan is a classic kind of almost Horatio Alger story-someone who comes up from nothing, doesn't really do very well in college, and exploits his own talents and becomes very successful.

The most striking [common theme] was Reagan's congenital optimism. Reagan, who came from a strong democratic family that revered Franklin Roosevelt, did soak up much of FDR's exuberant vitality, [which was] coupled with Reagan's own natural interest in acting and in being on the stage. Reagan did not purvey the kind of pessimistic message that you often hear from conservatives-especially in the Bush Administration-about the War on Terror, which is not presented in an uplifting "we all need to work together to beat this" fashion.

Richard Nixon is viewed as the ultimate realist and George W. Bush is critiqued as Wilsonian. Where does Reagan fit on this spectrum?

Reagan campaigned as an opponent of Nixon and Kissinger, and he was a fierce critic of détente. It's very hard to say that Reagan split the difference between Bush and Nixon. Reagan was unique in that he coupled such a firm conviction about American military power, and not just military power-what Reagan embodied was the fundamental confidence in the United States that I think in way, both Bush and Nixon lack. What's so appealing to everyone about Reagan is that he never lost faith in the United States. That was his basic message: That the United States had suffered bad setbacks in the 1970s, but that it would overcome them and triumph. And I don't quite see either Bush or Nixon as having delivered that message.

Everyone on the Right portrays themselves as Reagan's heir. What are the most common misconceptions of Reagan as a person and as a leader?

Well the obvious one is that only one aspect of his legacy is being played up by John McCain (R-AZ) and Mitt Romney (R-MA) and others. They portray the crusader Reagan-and that Reagan did exist of course-but he was not a one-dimensional man. He coupled the desire to defeat communism and to re-arm the American military with a positive attempt to reach out to the Soviet Union and end the arms race. He genuinely believed [in] the possibility of cooperation with the Soviet Union and that it was of paramount importance for the United States to avoid a nuclear war. I think he was more cautious and pragmatic than most of the current Republican candidates, as well as the Bush Administration.

Turning to the issue of foreign policy, you write that "Reagan rode to the presidency on the issue of anti-communism." When did his transformation from New Deal democrat to virulent anti-communist take place?

Reagan's personal confrontation with communists, including violent attacks on him, and the dangers that they posed cemented [and] forged his anti-communism. Whether the communists would have really been able to shape the movies and so forth, I don't know. But they were a threat in Hollywood, and they were violent. I think Reagan was appalled by this, and it was another episode in firming up his anticommunism.

You wrote your review before the publication of The Reagan Diaries. Did they change or reinforce any of your views on Reagan?