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Reagan's gifts to Americans

WASHINGTON

FIFTY YEARS from now -- take this to the bank -- few serious students of American history will dwell as much as contemporary commentators do on what a fabulous communicator Ronald Reagan was, or what a genuinely nice guy he was, or how he never described a glass as half-empty.

Style points fade with the passage of time; by definition they are the essence of superficiality.

Instead, historians will focus on the huge difference he made in people's lives -- in this country and around the world -- by being faithful to his principles but confident enough in himself to reach out beyond the confines of even his own intense ideology.

These future analysts, I'm convinced, will focus on a few major points about Reagan's public life. In no particular order:

(1) He breathed life back into the vital institution of the presidency. From the instant of John Kennedy's murder in 1963 until the moment Reagan took the oath in 1981, the office suffered from overuse, misuse, abuse, and underuse. This uniquely American creation -- what Franklin Roosevelt became convinced was above all a place of moral leadership -- was a rickety edifice when Reagan found it.

Horrific murder, the wrong war wrongly pursued, criminal scandal, and leadership weakness, even to the point of suggesting that the people were at fault as the economy teetered in the late 1970s, had been much of the legacies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Four negative legacies in a row, ending in an economic mess amid a yearlong hostage crisis and a continuing Cold War, had culminated in national unsteadiness.

Reagan filled the void by applying two principles of the modern era's best presidential scholars. Richard Neustadt, emphasizing the inherent weakness of the office described in the Constitution, wrote that an effective president had to use the tools it does make available (above all, the opportunity to lead), and James David Barber identified the ideal combination of traits shown by successful presidents: the combination of an activist agenda with a positive attitude; these so-called active-positive presidents have consistently been judged by history among the country's best.

For the first time in two decades, even after horrid events like the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan left the office in revived, revitalized condition.

(2) We called it Reagonomics, but the shouting match in his time about tax cuts and budget cuts missed the point about what was happening when he took office and what was not happening when he left.

As Reagan himself said more than a few times, there is nothing more destabilizing in a democracy than high inflation. Accompanied by high interest rates, the effect on the public can be frightening.   Continued...

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