Jonah Goldberg

But for the record: Reagan was no pragmatist, at least not in the way so many claim. Richard Nixon, the first President Bush, Bill Clinton: These men were pragmatists. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was an ideologue. Proudly so. And that's why conservatives loved him.

To call the Gipper a pragmatist is to confuse ends and means so totally so as to lose any comprehension of the difference between the two. It's one thing to say, "I have got to get to California, but I'm pragmatic about the best way to get there: car, boat, plane, train, mule, whatever." It's another thing to say, "I don't care where I go." Reagan was no hamster on a treadmill, marking time, going nowhere, waiting for events to come to him.

My friend, and former Reagan speechwriter, Peter Robinson overflows with stories about how Reagan knew precisely where he wanted to go.

For example: "Some people think I'm simplistic," Reagan told Richard Allen in 1977, four years before Allen became Reagan's first national security adviser, "but there's a difference between being simplistic and being simple. My theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose. What do you think about that?"

That is not something a pragmatist would say or believe in the 1970s or 1980s. Indeed, the entire "let Reagan be Reagan" debate centered on one elemental fact - Reagan championed ideas first, last and always, and his pragmatic aides knew it and didn't like it.

Of course, Ronald Reagan was a politician. And politicians - smart ones at least - understand that a dogged determination to follow a straight line, particularly in foreign policy, is not always the shortest route to victory. This is something critics, in both parties, of George Bush's Iraq compromises should keep in mind.

Still, it is a sign of the poor repute of ideas and idealism in this country today that so many people believe there's a contradiction between being humane, decent and practical and being "ideological."

Ideology, properly understood, is a checklist of priorities and principles. And conservative ideology explicitly accepts that compromise is part of life, since this world can never be made as perfect as the next. Reagan left this world better than he found it because he never stopped being an ideologue when it mattered. Now, he's in the next world, where he can rest - and chew some gum.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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