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Verdict on the Reagan years

Having voted twice for Ronald Reagan and urged others to do so, I think it may be appropriate to try to evaluate his presidency.

The tendency has been to treat him like a rock star, a celebrity figure, and he certainly is that. But those who attribute his astonishingly high approval rating only to his charm are, I think, missing the point.

The first thing to consider is that a presidential election is not a means of establishing Utopia. It is, in this country, as a practical matter, a choice between two candidates.

Reagan defeated first Jimmy Carter, an incumbent, and second Walter Mondale, a former vice president and senator and protege of Hubert Humphrey, the archetypical social Democrat.

Both of the Reagan opponents have been unkindly and often unfairly maligned. Politics is like that. But Carter, whatever his virtues, had lost the confidence of the country; and at the end of his term, the economy was lurching toward the trough of 1982. Mondale represented big government and what turned out to be a doomed effort to reconstitute the obsolete Democratic alliance between labor, big city machines, government employees, ethnics, poor people, free traders, rural populists and the South.

By contrast, Reagan's great virtue was simplicity. He said he would cut taxes, and he did. He denied he would destroy Social Security, as his opponents kept insisting that he would, and he didn't. He favored limited government, and he had some success in limiting it. He said he would build up the nation's defenses, and he did, restoring morale and prestige to a scanted and demoralized military. He had promised a tough, uncompromising stance against international communism and the Soviet Union, and he adopted such a posture. He said he would support Israel and he did so, possibly even beyond Israel's expectations. He even said he would seek peace through strength and a reduction of nuclear arms, and, with a lot of help from Congress and Mikhail Gorbachev, he did those things, too.

On the economic front, he presided, after the aforementioned 1982 Rust Belt and oil-patch recession, over what may have been the most prosperous period in the nation's history, even if much of it was financed by deficit spending.

Jeff Greenfield, brilliantly, I think, asked rhetorically the other night whether a liberal Democrat, guaranteed these outcomes during the campaign in 1980, would not have happily settled for such a performance.

Above all, Reagan restored patriotism to popular acceptability. The reality, as usual, does not quite measure up to the dream. And there seems to be a deep American tendency toward a nasty xenophobia, favored villains being the ayatollah, Khadafy and "terrorists." There is racism in it and a basic insecurity, I suspect. If Americans were really confident of their national identity they would not have to be as rude and mean to strangers as frequently they are.

People liked Reagan's toughness, which verged on belligerency. But the picture of the grieving president, hand over heart, meeting the flag-draped coffins as they were flown home will not embellish his presidency. Too many died for too many inexplicable reasons. The sailors on the Stark were killed by Iraqi missile fire, for heaven's sake. America tilted toward Iraq and against Iran, apparently to please or intimidate the Saudis and the Gulf states and stroke the ayatollah-haters at home; and now America is coming out against poison gas, Iraq's weapon of choice against civilians. The truck-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut was inexcusable; Reagan took the blame, which meant nobody else had to. Grenada was tragicomic opera.

Reagan failed dismally in his social-issue crusades against abortion and in favor of prayer in the public schools. And often, unless he had been briefed, he did not seem to be in touch with things.

But most people aren't. The inexpert American public could identify with the Reagan inexpertise. Jimmy Carter was something of an expert. So is Mike Dukakis. You can hire experts. People know it. Reagan was smart enough not to appear too smart.

History will write the verdict on Reagan about 50 years from now. My guess is that he will be remembered as a good man and a good, but not great, president, a leader who put a badly fractured national community back together in a bad time. The country will miss him, I expect.

And what helped him most was something his enemies used as a stick to beat him with -- he was and is a professional actor. People love the theater and love to be romanced. George Bush, that earnest sobersides, should take note.

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