03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gray Matters -- Ronald Reagan: Revisited and Revised

Can anyone guess which modern statesman said the following, which I shall quote at length?

"Facing conditions of absolute inhumanity such as those which now exist in Sudan and Somalia, does not the world have a moral responsibility to act? To choose the right to passage, to impose minimum order and provide sanctuaries of relief? In parts of Africa today, mankind is an endangered species.

"Have we come to the point where we must set up human preserves as we have for rhinos and elephants? If so, then let us do it, and do it now...We must work toward a standing U.N. force-an army of conscience-that is fully equipped and prepared to carve out human sanctuaries if necessary...I can think of no more honorable mission for a soldier or his country.."

I do not think that people like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich or the rest of today's so-called right winged Republicans would even come close to agreeing with that or recognizing who said it. But then they didn't really know the man who said it, the man they profess to idolize and emulate; whose name they take in vain attempts to justify their extreme politics.

The speaker was of course Ronald Reagan, and soon, on Feb. 6, it will be his 99th birthday and plans are afoot among the righteous right to celebrate extravagantly his centenary. But I came to know him during more than eight years that I covered his campaigns and his presidency. And we corresponded after that. Those words I cited above was the Reagan who had learned a few things and grew during and after his presidency. This was the Reagan who, plainly put, was not anywhere as near as radical or as nuts as the people who now control Republican politics.

Reagan was popular because he was an inclusive person, with not a trace of wingnut vindictiveness -- even towards a critical reporter. He was close to then Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'neill; one of his first appointments was that of former Senate Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield as ambassador to Japan.

The speech, to which I'll return, was entitled "Democracy's Next Battle," and was delivered on Dec. 4, 1992, at the Oxford Union Society, in England, just a month after Bill Clinton was elected president. The students of the storied debating society had expected to poke fun at Reagan, then 81. But they greeted his unexpected words with a prolonged standing ovation.

I know, this was the same Ronald Reagan who ushered in the era of greed and huge deficits, who approved selling arms to Iran to finance the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua; who turned the cold war icy with his railing against the Soviets as the "evil empire"; who sent troops into hapless Grenada, probably to mitigate the killing of 240 Marines in Lebanon; who gave us Star Wars, the myth of a missile defense that's still with us.

I know about these Reagan misadventures, for I covered and wrote critically about all of them, first for Knight Ridder Newspapers, then for Newsday. And I laughed at Reagan's foibles, as when he came back from Central America and exclaimed that "there are a lot of different countries down there." Or when he visited a souvenir stand in China and proclaimed that it was a sign that free enterprise had come to Beijing.

Nevertheless, I am a bit of a Reagan revisionist, for it's important to contrast his presidency and his brand of conservatism with that of the former and unlamented occupant of the White House and the right-wing reactionaries who have hijacked conservatism, which my dictionary defines as "a political orientation advocating the preservation of the best in society and opposing radical changes;" that would include radical changes to the Constitution.

It is true that Reagan came into office with a promise to cut taxes by a third, which he did with the help of Democrats who piled on their own tax breaks. Signed in 1981, it was the largest tax cut in history. But Reagan's chief of staff was Vice President George H.W. Bush's former campaign manager, James A. Baker, a pragmatic conservative hated by White House right-wingers like Pat Buchanan. Fearing that the tax cuts were too deep, that the deficit was growing too quickly, Baker and the Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, also a pragmatic conservative, combined in 1983 to get Reagan's grudging approval for the largest tax increase in history.

In 1976, when Reagan ran in the Republican primaries against then Vice President Gerald Ford, he suggested Social Security be made voluntary. He also believed that Medicare was a step towards socialized medicine. But in the presidency, he came to understand that Social Security would collapse if it was made voluntary and he made no move to change its nature. Instead, the commission he appointed under Alan Greenspan, made changes that saved Social Security for 75 years. Nor did he make a move to privatize or cut Medicare. Perhaps that's because he admired and voted for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman before he became a Republican; he didn't allow ideology to get in the way of good sense and politics.

He was late coming to the fight against AIDS, as the epidemic grew in the Reagan years. But he did come at the urging most importantly of Elizabeth Taylor. And despite support from right-wing fundamentalists, Reagan, the first president who had been divorced, did not engage in gay bashing and he did not press his views against abortion, probably because he had too many Hollywood friends who were gay or had abortions.

It is also true that Reagan, against the advice of Baker and most of his generals, sent Marines into Lebanon in 1982, ostensibly to protect the airfield and other installations as the Israelis were pursuing the fleeing Palestinians. Reagan was effusively pro-Israel, but the pragmatists argued that even if the marines were supposed to be neutral they would be seen as on Israel's side and get deeper into the quagmire. Sure enough, after Reagan ordered a battleship to fire on positions that had been attacking the Marines, came the bombing of their barracks. I was there when Reagan took responsibility, then pulled the marines out.

Finally, despite his cold war rhetoric, Reagan was among the first leaders in the west (with then British Prime minister Margaret Thatcher) to recognize that Mikhail Gorbachev was a genuine reformer and, as I reported in these columns earlier, he met with the then Soviet leader in Moscow to declare the era of the evil empire was over. And together they concluded treaties to reduce, for the first time, the number of nuclear weapons. They are still in force

I've always believed that when he called for Gorbachev in 1986 to "tear down" the Berlin wall, he knew it would happen. And it did, when George H.W. Bush was president and Baker was his secretary of state. Bush, as vice-president, had thought Reagan naive about Gorbachev and as president delayed for a year agreeing to the arms treaties that Reagan made possible.

Indeed, in one meeting with Gorbachev that I covered, in Iceland, Reagan and Gorbachev nearly agreed to banish all nuclear weapons, until their advisers intervened. And after Reagan's death in 2004, Fred Kaplan concluded in Slate that "the end of the Cold War may be the most oddball chapter in the history of the 20th Century. How fitting that, then, that the two most oddball leaders, Gorbachev and Reagan, made it come to pass."

Consider, please, what would have happened in those days if Baker or Reagan had listened to the naysayers and cold-warriors in the Reagan administration, like the Buchanans, Rumsfelds, Cheneys, and Richard Perle. What if we were listening to the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity and O'Reilly then?

Reagan was a conservative to the core, but he grew in office. Once, before he became president, he suggested the U.N. should "sail off into the sunset," forgetting that the organization is on the east coast.

As he told the Oxford students, "I did not always value international organizations and for good reason, they were nothing more than debating societies...But with the end of the cold war, the U.N. was also liberated...As long as military power remains a necessary tool of modern existence, then we should use it as a humanitarian tool and rely more on multilateral institutions-such as NATO and the U.N....The noble vision of the U.N.'s founders is now closer to realization."

I was told Reagan wrote most of the speech, which concluded, "My young friends, I hope with all my hearts that your days will be great, not on the battlefield, but in science labs, the operating rooms, performing arts halls and wherever empires of the mind can be assembled."

Perhaps such eloquence is one of the reasons President Barack Obama admired and understood Reagan's legacy better than those who call themselves his heirs.

Saul also writes for Time Goes By (