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Ronald Reagan

“The daily expressions of Reagan’s long-term strategies – inveighing against deficits while creating them, aspiring to eliminate nuclear missiles while increasing them – were often inconsistent. Failure to choose between opposing alternatives sometimes produced a zigzag pattern in his presidency. But a tolerance for cognitive dissonance, like other forms of irrationality, can be an effective negotiating tactic. The Soviets, like Tip O’Neill, were never quite sure which Reagan they were bargaining with. His ability to live with contradiction was, on balance, more blessing than curse.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many people remembered having had views similar to Reagan’s about the vulnerability of the Soviet Union. But Reagan, as Robert Gates wrote in his 1996 memoir From the Shadows, ‘nearly alone truly believed in 1981 that the Soviet system was vulnerable not in some vague, long-range historical sense, but right then.’ Reagan’s commonsense view of historical inevitability was that an unworkable government was sure to break down sooner or later. ‘Communism is neither an economic or a political system – it is a form of insanity – a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature,’ he wrote in his unpublished 1962 statement, ‘Are Liberals Really Liberal?’ […]

Reagan himself never used phrases such as ‘American exceptionalism’ or ‘moral clarity,’ any more than he talked about being visionary or consequential. He had a low level of self-consciousness, and expressed these concepts simply by being himself. If none of his successors formed the kind of bond he did with the country, it may be because few politicians have ever embodied the idealized national character the way Reagan did. Simplicity, innocence, and personal modesty are rare qualities in public life, and difficult ones to fake. People excused Reagan’s lapses and contradictions because they believed he was genuine and recognized themselves in his aspirations.

Reagan’s claim to the nation’s affection rests on his American personality: his homespun wit, his good nature, and his native optimism. His claim to greatness rests on his role in the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism. To put the case in the simplest possible terms, the Soviet Union didn’t fall; it was pushed. The push that Gorbachev gave it was the proximate cause, but it reflected pressure that Reagan began to apply four years before Gorbachev came to power. Gorbachev’s goal was to render it harmless. Through the shove he gave it came from farther away, it was intended to produce the outcome that followed, one that he was nearly alone in thinking possible.”


Pulled from chapters 10 (“The Ash Heap of History”) and 15 (“Tear Down This Wall”) of Jacob Weinberg’s short biography Ronald Reagan, which was published last month.

Yes, I posted this so I could chalk one up in the February ’16 column. Shameless, especially on a leap day, but the 41-month post streak is alive.

You can see Weinberg, who’s a self-identified liberal, discuss the book and some revelations about the Gipper in his recent conversation with Christopher Buckley at the 92nd St. Y.