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Defining Reagan's Legacy: Two Expert Views

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I don't have anything worthwhile to add to the huge outpouring of commentary and analysis triggered by the Ronald Reagan Centennial, but I know a couple of very smart guys who do.

One is Lou Cannon, the definitive Reagan biographer who was my colleague on the Ridder Newspapers Washington bureau in the late 1960's and early '70's -- and later senior White House correspondent for the Washington Post. He had been covering then-Gov. Reagan for the San Jose Mercury and had just written a dual biography of Reagan and Jesse Unruh.

The other is David McCullough, America's premier historian whom I met when he accompanied my then-boss Vice President Mondale to the Panama Canal in 1978 shortly after publication of his epic prize-winning book about the creation of the canal, The Path Between the Seas.

Both have remained friends since, I'm proud to say, which is my excuse for resurrecting two columns I wrote in The Hill about their insights into Reagan that I think explain the Great Communicator as well or better than anyone has. (As the late syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick said, "One of the greatest pleasures in life is lying in bed with a pint of bourbon and reading your own columns.")

In April 2000, when Cannon's widely praised 1991 biography, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, was reissued following Reagan's disclosure that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease, I noted that Cannon had added a chapter assessing the last two-term president before Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

"Relying on scores of interviews with Reagan over the years, including three since he left office," I wrote, "Cannon credits Reagan's 'innocent and unshakable belief in the myth of an American exceptionalism as the secret of his political achievements and enduring popularity. Whatever he lacked in analytical skills, he more than made up for with common sense and the power of his personality.

"However, Cannon does not gloss over Reagan's shortcomings. 'Of all the myths in which Reagan believed, none was more fundamental to his vision and his message than the notion that Americans had taken control of their destiny without assistance from the central government."

But, he added, Reagan "ignored the beneficial role of the government in his own life ... Because he loved his country deeply without caring enough for its government, Reagan's vision was flawed and inevitably conflicted. And from his conflicted vision would flow a highly conflicted presidential legacy" that included turning a blind eye to ethical misdeeds by his subordinates, including the Iran Contra scandal.

Nevertheless, I wrote, Cannon concluded that "Reagan may not have been a great president, but he was a great American who held a compelling vision of his country."

Then, when Reagan died in June 2004, I decided to call McCullough at his home on Martha's Vineyard to ask him for his assessment of Reagan. "Having written best-selling books about three presidents ... and about to finish another on the American Revolution, David McCullough understands what makes up the American character as well as anyone," I wrote at the time.

McCullough said several things made Reagan "a prototypical American man," including "his rise from humble beginnings in the Midwest as the son of an alcoholic father, his strong work ethic and athletic prowess, his good looks and easy charm that served him so well as a movie actor and politician."

Like John Adams and Harry Truman, whose biographies he wrote along with that of Theodore Roosevelt before he became president, I wrote that "McCullough sees Reagan as an example ... of a president who turned out to be different from the way he was initially portrayed. Clark Clifford once called Reagan an 'amiable dunce,' but now that his letters and other writings have come to light, it's very obvious that this was a very thoughtful, articulate man" who disproved doubts about the sincerity of a former actor.

"Americans don't like anything false, and the assumption was that movie stars were fake. But we found out in time that he really was a good-natured, optimistic guy who was very conservative and believed in the old values. There was no ambiguity about what he meant ..."

McCullough added, "I think along with his optimism, which was very natural to the man, was the fact that he never whined, never said, 'Woe is me,' and never blamed other people when things went wrong. I think that's immensely appealing to all of us as a people."

Perhaps more important, McCullough said, Reagan "clearly enjoyed being president... The presidents we like best are those who liked their job, Theodore Roosevelt being the all-time champ. Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed being president, and it showed. Others, like Nixon, made it feel like the most difficult job imaginable. It's not easy being president, no matter how talented and well-meaning you are, but Reagan never complained about that."

Finally, McCullough offered one other observation about Reagan that, if I had thought to ask, he probably would have agreed was equally important to his success. "All of Reagan's humor was directed at himself," he said. "He never made fun of or belittled others. Like Eisenhower, he was a hard guy to dislike."

Maybe the qualities that McCullough and Cannon identify as the key to Reagan's enduring appeal explain why President Obama decided to read Cannon's book, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, during his recent Christmas vacation in Hawaii. Whatever lessons he learned from it may well help determine whether he's America's next two-term president, or just a flash in the historical pan.