WASHINGTON -- The second-greatest president of the 20th century dies (with Theodore Roosevelt coming a close third), and the liberal establishment that alternately ridiculed and demonized Ronald Reagan throughout his presidency is in a quandary. How to remember a man they anathematized for eight years, but who enjoys both the overwhelming affection of the American people and decisive vindication by history?
They found their way to do it. They dwell endlessly on the man's smile, his sunny personality, his good manners. Above all, his optimism.
``Optimism'' is the perfect way to trivialize everything that Reagan was or did. Pangloss was an optimist. Harold Stassen was an optimist. Ralph Kramden was an optimist. Optimism is nice, but it gets you nowhere unless you also possess ideological vision, policy and prescriptions to make it real, and finally, the political courage to act on your convictions.
Optimism? Every other person on the No. 6 bus is an optimist. What distinguished Reagan was what he did and said. Reagan was optimistic about America amid the cynicism and general retreat of the post-Vietnam era because he believed unfashionably that America was both great and good -- and had been needlessly diminished by restrictive economic policies and timid foreign policies. Change the policies, and America would be restored, both at home and abroad.
He was right.
Moreover, at the time, Reagan's optimism was deemed pejorative. It was the cockeyed optimism of the simpleton, a man too shallow, unsophisticated, unschooled and unthinking -- in short, too stupid -- to know better. An ``amiable dunce,'' as Clark Clifford, wisest of the Washington wise men, dubbed him. Justin Kaplan's 1992 edition of Bartlett's has only three quotes from Reagan -- all trivial, all designed to make him look silly. It was only under pressure that the next edition added ``Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" and other historic lines.
Clifford and Kaplan spoke for an establishment that considered Reagan a simplistic primitive -- whose simplistic primitivism was endangering the world. These were the twin themes: Reagan was stupid, and his stupidity made him dangerous. Those too young to remember the 1980s would be astonished to know how unrelenting and common was the notion of Reagan as a warmonger.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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