In foreign affairs, Reagan was not always sober and judicious. He shocked Cold Warriors by advocating complete nuclear disarmament at his Reykjavik summit with Michel Gorbachev.
In the middle of Lebanon’s civil war, he first put American troops into a crossfire. Then, when 241 marines were blown up, he withdrew them. That about-face, and the failure to retaliate in serious fashion, helped to embolden Hezbollah’s anti-American terrorism for decades.
The Iran-Contra scandal exploded when a few rogue administration officials sold state-of-the-art missiles under the table to Iran’s terrorist-sponsoring theocracy, and prompted opposition talk of impeachment.
In other words, a great president like Ronald Reagan made mistakes. He sometimes reversed positions, played politics and baffled his conservative base — some of the very charges now leveled against Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson.
When a candidate today says, “Reagan would have done this or that,” he apparently has a poor memory of what Reagan — the often lonely, flesh-and-blood conservative in the 1980s — was forced to do to get elected, govern and be re-elected. While in office, he proved more often the pragmatic leader than the purist knight slaying ideological dragons on the campaign trail.
So what is the real Reagan legacy? It is mostly the Great Communicator’s uncanny ability to distill complex problems, offer a more conservative solution than America was used to or ready for, and then inspire and enact difficult change through a brilliant “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” turn of phrase.
But 2008 is a different world from a quarter-century ago, when Reagan began his presidency. Amnesiac candidates need to separate the myth of Reagan — the perfect conservative — from the real man when stridently chastising their rivals for their past fudging on taxes, illegal immigration or the size of government.
The current pack of five serious Republican candidates should call on the spirit and principled inspiration of Ronald Reagan for guidance about new problems in the way they evoke Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt.
But these candidates only do his memory — and their own careers — a disservice by claiming sainthood for Ronald Reagan, and thereby demanding a standard of immaculate conservative conduct that neither Reagan nor they could ever attain.