“Biography and the Construction of Presidential Legacy” Panel
By Matthew Kredell
Photo by Tom Queally
Tom Brokaw recalled the first time he met Ronald Reagan to approximately 1,000 people assembled at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Feb. 2 as part of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Academic Symposium, co-presented by the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development.
Brokaw was 26 years old and on one of his first assignments for the NBC news bureau in Burbank. He remembers the news editor told him: “Kid, we’re going to let you meet with this guy Reagan who thinks he’s going to get nominated for governor. We don’t think he’s going anywhere, but you’ll get to know California a little bit and you’ll be able to ride around with him.”
Forty-five years later, Brokaw gathered with three Reagan biographers and former California Gov. Pete Wilson to discuss the lasting legacy of the United States’ 40th president in a panel titled Biography and the Construction of Presidential Legacy.
Richard Reeves, a senior lecturer at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, David Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, and Lou Cannon, White House correspondent for the Washington Post during the Reagan administration, brought to the discussion their wealth of knowledge from a combined seven books on Reagan.
Photo by Steve Cohn
“The insight that those guys have into Reagan, the historical context of his life and then his legacy is astounding,” said Sara Pietrowski, a second-year MPA student in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. “People who worked with him, who knew him for a really long time, getting to hear what they think of him is a special experience.”
That the news editor underestimated Reagan wasn’t uncommon. Few people thought an actor with a modest academic background could go so far. Cannon, author of five books on the former president, said Reagan himself was the primary reason so many underestimated him. When asked during his campaign for governor of California what kind of governor he would be, he responded, “I don’t know, I’ve never played a governor.”
He was unassuming and self-deprecating, and it put people at ease. Cannon called Reagan “almost egoless.” Reeves added that John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon cared a great deal about what people thought of them and how they would be remembered. Reagan was old enough not to really care what people thought of him, and that led to him seeming comfortable in his own skin.
Reagan’s speech making is what launched him into a political candidate, particularly a nationally televised speech he gave in support of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 titled A Time for Choosing. At lunch prior to the panel, Brokaw said Nancy Reagan told him the Goldwater advisers weren’t happy with the content of the speech and didn’t think it would work for a national audience. Nancy wondered what would have happened if Reagan hadn’t given the speech.
“It’s very clear how gifted he was and how at ease at giving a public speech or telling a story,” Brokaw said. “By the time he got to that place where the rest of the country began to see him as a presidential candidate, there was no more gifted a platform performer than Ronald Reagan.”
Brinkley, who edited The Reagan Diaries, noted that, though he is called the “Great Communicator,” Reagan did not tape his White House conversations as Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and Kennedy had before him. He kept large, leather-bound books that he wrote in every day except for a three-day period after the assassination attempt. No other president wrote in a diary that consistently over his administration. From his editing of the diaries, Brinkley discovered that Reagan was not thin-skinned. He might have an outburst in his diary one day, but he always moved on.
Reeves pointed out that presidents are remembered for how they dealt with three or four major events. “No one remembers if Abraham Lincoln balanced the budget,” he said.
What catapults Reagan into the upper echelon of presidents, according to the panelists, was ending the Cold War without firing a shot, avoiding nuclear disaster and the possibility of World War III.
Reeves said he thought Reagan was a good president and a great politician. He still placed Reagan near the top of his second tier of presidents, not at the level of Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt. Cannon took exception to that characterization.
“I think Ronald Reagan was a great president because of what he did with the Soviet Union, with Mikhail Gorbachev,” Cannon said. “The notion that we could destroy civilization as we know it was not a metaphor, it was true.”
Reagan had a plan. He increased U.S. defense spending in order to negotiate with the Soviet Union from a position of power and make it clear to Gorbachev that he couldn’t win an arms race, then convinced Saudi Arabia to increase oil production in order to stagnate the Soviet economy. Much of Reagan’s own party and even some among his staff, according to Reeves, thought he was making a fool of himself by trying to deal with Gorbachev.
“Gorbachev does deserve credit, but the guy that made him come to the table was Ronald Reagan,” Wilson said. “… This was a tough guy. He knew how to bargain.”
When Reagan took office, the country was shaken from the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Watergate and a poor economy. He made people proud to be Americans again.
Reagan’s real legacy lies in the impact he still has on America. Brinkley said, “We are living in the age of Ronald Reagan today.” Reeves went as far as to say, “Reagan is still president, as FDR was president for 30 years.”
“Ronald Reagan changed American politics in our lifetime, perhaps forever, by reversing populism in making big government the enemy,” said Reeves, who wrote a paper for the symposium, titled “The Last Campaign: Legacy.” “Big government is the cause of the problem, it’s not the solution. That’s the America we are living in today, the majority opinion in America thinks that the government is inherently bad for them as they once believed big business was. That is an incredible political achievement.”