Victor Davis Hanson

Ronald Reagan’s presidency was a great success. He rebuilt a chaotic U.S. military and helped end the Cold War. Reagan’s radical tax cuts in 1981 spurred economic growth and redefined the relationship between U.S. citizens and their government. And he appointed conservative federal judges and bureaucrats who tried to roll back the half-century trend of expanded governmental control over our lives.

Reagan’s nice-guy charm made it difficult for even his critics to stay angry with him for long. But he was no mere smiling dunce, as liberal intellectuals used to snicker. His private papers and diaries instead reveal that he was widely informed, read voraciously, drew on a powerful intellect and was an effective writer.

It is no wonder that conservative leaders — especially the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls — now constantly evoke Ronald Reagan’s successful presidency. In contrast, they rarely hearken back to the uprightness of the one-term Gerald Ford, or praise the foreign-policy accomplishments of the two Bush Republican presidencies.

Instead, the candidates try to “out-Reagan” each other by claiming they alone are the true Reaganites while their rivals in the primaries are too liberal, flip-floppers or without consistent conservative principles.

In short, Ronald Reagan has been beatified into some sort of saint, as if he were above the petty lapses and contradictions of today’s candidates. The result is that conservatives are losing sight of Reagan the man while placing unrealistic requirements of perfection on his would-be successors.

They have forgotten that Reagan — facing spiraling deficits, sinking poll ratings and a hostile Congress — reluctantly signed legislation raising payroll, income and gasoline taxes, some of them among the largest in our history. He promised to limit government and eliminate the Departments of Education and Energy. Instead, when faced with congressional and popular opposition, he relented and even grew government by adding a secretary of veteran affairs to the Cabinet.

Two of his Supreme Court appointments, Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, were far more liberal than George W. Bush’s selections, the diehard constructionists, John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

Reagan’s 1986 comprehensive immigration bill turned out to be the most liberal amnesty for illegal aliens in our nation’s history, and set the stage for the present problem of 12 million aliens here unlawfully.

Republicans forget all this — but so do Democrats, who for their own reasons want to perpetuate an unflattering myth of Ronald Reagan as an extremist right-wing reactionary.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.