Re-examining Reagan

Posted: Nov 26, 2003 12:00 AM

Make no mistake, it wasn't the letter from Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie that got CBS to pull the plug on its "The Reagans" miniseries.

It wasn't the raft of recent books, such as "Reagan in His Own Words" and "How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life," either. The "amiable dunce" view of our 40th president, which these books set out to dispel, was largely dead before either went to press.

It wasn't even that the biggest stink made over the series pertained to scenes the producers fashioned out of thin air – such as President Reagan allegedly saying AIDS victims had lived sinful lives and deserved their punishment, and scenes suggesting he suffered from Alzheimer's as early as 1985.

No, the network pulled "The Reagans" – gave it to its sister cable network, actually – because executives feared that airing it would put CBS in bad stead with the American people. A documentary might have worked – even if it exposed a few warts. But a Hollywood hatchet job on a man most Americans view as a genuine hero wasn't going to fly.

Enough time has passed, enough dust has cleared, enough history has unfolded for Americans to appreciate what Ronald Reagan truly meant to this country. That's why even Barbra Streisand and her cronies no longer can get away with trashing him. History has made it all but impossible not to recognize what former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., called the "shift in the tectonic plates of American politics" that President Reagan wrought.

It was Ronald Reagan who saw the rise of small business and its enormous potential to create jobs and set about making tax and regulatory policy to accommodate these entrepreneurs. It was Ronald Reagan who recognized that lowering taxes didn't make the country poorer but was in fact critical to a strong economy.

It was Ronald Reagan who realized that one day some unstable tyrant will get control of a ballistic missile – possibly with chemical or biological warheads attached – and that America better be ready with a missile defense shield.

Which leads me to the biggie: It was Ronald Reagan who declared there is no moral equivalence between our political and social systems and those in communist countries ... and that we ought to stop acting as if there were. That's what ended the Cold War. It led him to call the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire," and to tell Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down that wall."

More importantly, it led President Reagan to engage the Soviets in a defense-spending war he knew they could not win. When they realized they couldn't win, the Cold War ended more abruptly than even the always-optimistic president probably expected.

Like all the truly great presidents, Ronald Reagan had a vision of what Americans wanted and needed in a commander in chief. He understood how to get them to feel good about their country and its role in the world. It's hard to see that in the rolling and tumbling of daily life in politics, but years later – now – it's readily apparent.

How far did President Reagan move the political goalposts? When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he proposed tax cuts to jumpstart the slowing economy. The debate in Washington wasn't over whether tax cuts would help the economy. All sides accepted that premise. The argument was over numbers.

Same with welfare reform. Thanks to President Reagan, we no longer argue over whether welfare recipients should work or perform public service in exchange for government assistance. We argue over how much they should be required to work.

Missile defense, which opponents derided as a Hollywood fantasy when President Reagan proposed it, is now the law of the land, having passed by a veto-proof majority.

Time may be catching up with President Reagan. He's past 90 now, afflicted with Alzheimer's and unable to remember the critical role he played in making America great again.

But time definitely has caught up with his critics, and history has been far more kind to President Reagan than to their predictions about his policies. This is obvious to most Americans. And that's why CBS' mean-spirited mini-series never saw the light of network television.