"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Ronald Reagan famously told Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin on June 12, 1987.
Usually only the last sentence of this quote garners attention, its context lost on casual observers who interpret it as a crusader's command. But when read in context, it is not a demand; it is a conditional statement. Reagan does not assume Gorbachev wants peace, prosperity and liberalization, but observes that if the general secretary chooses them, there remains only one course of action: Gorbachev-and not Reagan or the U.S. military-must tear down the wall, not out of compulsion, but of his own volition.
Such are the nuances of Ronald Reagan, which tend not to translate well in presidential debates, stump speeches and ahistorical grandstanding. The National Interest hosted an event on July 18 to more closely examine Reagan's policies, character and legacy, based on Jacob Heilbrunn's review essay, "A Uniter, Not a Decider", in the July/August issue of the magazine. David Keene of the American Conservative Union moderated.
Heilbrunn noted that Reagan, the iconic political figure of postwar conservatism, was "pretty far to the left in the late 1930s", and he only became a Harry Truman-style anti-communist after World War II. As Reagan confronted the communist threat first-hand in Hollywood as president of the Screen Actors Guild and then went on to work for General Electric (GE), he "was molded into a conservative, but also transformed himself into one" Heilbrunn said. Lemuel Boulware, Reagan's mentor at GE, was largely responsible for this metamorphosis, as Thomas Evans documents in The Education of Ronald Reagan. In many ways, Boulware's ideas formed the foundation of the modern Republican Party, Heilbrunn said, marrying anti-communism and a desire "not [to] overthrow the New Deal, but subvert it or ameliorate it."
As Reagan rose through the political ranks, first as California governor and finally the presidency, he attracted the scorn of many who deemed him, in the memorable words of Clark Clifford, "An amiable dunce." David Keene disputed this conception of Reagan.
"Reagan was never an empty vessel", he said. "He was a reasonable and cautious man." Keene also cited a 1981 meeting Reagan held with Bob Novak and Rowland Evans, in which the president blew the heavyweight journalists away with his grasp of political philosophy.
On the issue of Reagan's approach to foreign affairs, Keene described Reagan as an "optimistic realist" who knew the United States would prevail in the Cold War and therefore rejected what he saw as the fatalism of Nixon and Kissinger's détente.
But not all comments were adulatory. Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute critiqued the Reagan presidency on policy grounds, citing increases in federal spending, taxes, the withdrawal from Lebanon following the Marine barracks bombing in 1983 and the Iran-Contra scandal.
In response, Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at The Nixon Center and former special assistant President Reagan for national security affairs, drew attention to the internal machinations of the White House and their impact on policy. Kemp specifically cited the influence of Secretary of State George Schultz-who "for six years provided a steady counterweight" to neoconservatives and hawks in the administration-Nancy Reagan and James Baker. "If [Baker] had been there [he left the White House to become secretary of the treasury in 1985] Iran-Contra never would've happened."
Keene also emphasized Baker's role in the White House. "Baker saved Reagan's bacon in many ways", he said.
A common theme among participants in the discussion was Reagan's flexibility and pragmatism-both markedly absent in the current administration and those Republicans aspiring to succeed it. And it is not just Republican leaders who have changed, but also the public.
In 1984, 24 percent of the people were persuadable during election season, Keene said. Today, that number is in single digits. The emergence of the mass media no longer guarantees that Americans know the same reality. Where as once the electorate debated policy based on a shared understanding of the facts, today's news outlets provide markedly different reports, deepening the divide between Americans and rendering compromise and progress elusive.
This combined with the Republican primaries show, in Heilbrunn's words, that Reagan "belongs to the past, not the future."
Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.