Why Reagan Tops Roosevelt's Legacy

The big story in Washington this week – the only story, for all intents and purposes – is that Ronald Reagan, after a long and withering struggle with Alzheimer’s and a longer and glorious life as the greatest leader of the 20th Century – died Saturday at the age of 93.

Many obituaries place him on equal footing with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but Reagan deserves to stand alone atop the podium. Consider the men’s different records and approaches.

Roosevelt inherited an economy just plunging into recession and recommended a “cure” that didn’t work – larger government, make-work projects, etc. (I will not rehearse the economic data that undergird my claim; suffice it to say that Roosevelt was more effective in rallying the nation through rhetoric than he was in reviving the economy through Keynesian “stimulus.”) World War II did what the New Deal could not: It fueled an economic and national revival.

FDR also practiced considerable legislative chicanery. His economic policies bore little resemblance to the program he promised on the stump – and he often did things he had promised as a candidate never to do. 

When it came to fighting a war, Roosevelt entered the fray when it was politically uncontroversial, not when it was obviously necessary. He didn’t issue a call to arms when German u-boats sank American ships on the high seas. He moved only when Pearl Harbor created public rage sufficient to overcome America’s pacifist/isolationist leanings.

Finally, Roosevelt was eloquent, but not especially warm. Some of his speeches are a wonder to this day, and his fireside chats pioneered new terrain in establishing a link between a chief executive and the vast American public. Nevertheless, he seemed at times distant, almost regal. Despite these cavils, he was a very great man.

Reagan enjoys several slight advantages over his one-time hero. First, he governed according to the blueprints he presented to the electorate. His tax cuts delivered the economic growth he promised and the gusher of federal revenue he predicted. (Congress, of course, spent at an even more dizzying pace.) The Kemp-Roth tax cuts revived a moribund economy and revolutionized economic theory.

He also risked censure by promoting a foreign policy that scandalized the diplomatic establishment – one that aimed at the seemingly impossible goal of crushing communism. Again, his instincts proved wiser than professorial prejudices. Reagan strengthened the American military, used diplomacy to persuade wavering European allies to place new nuclear weapons on their soil, and promoted relentlessly the ideal of freedom.

This last mission may have been the most important. Like America’s founders, he regarded liberty and virtue as inseparable elements of one another: no liberty without virtue and no virtue without liberty. He also believed liberty/virtue would triumph over tyranny/evil. He was optimistic, and he was right. Reagan’s words didn’t merely inspire people laboring under communist subjugation. They made captive nations think, and dream – and act.

Unlike Roosevelt, Reagan had to persuade a wary nation that it was at war and that the enemy meant business. Jimmy Carter warned against “and inordinate fear of communism,” and Reagan’s detractors accused him of courting an apocalyptic nuclear exchange. But Reagan understood the conflict against communism as a battle between good and evil, and he was right. 

Finally, Reagan forged a more direct personal relationship with the electorate than any modern president. He told jokes, shared stories, spun tales – and in the process made big, bold truths seem comfortable and comforting.

While visionaries usually stand alone on their soapboxes, thundering with aloof passion, Reagan talked like everyone’s best buddy – the national guy-next-door. He bypassed the national media because the press corps was too conventional and timid to appreciate his then-radical views, and talked directly to the public – a practice that infuriated the press and thrilled the vast majority of Americans.

To summarize: Reagan completed the two great projects started by Roosevelt – the struggle against fascism and socialism, and the quest for an economic policy that would unleash the enterprise and enthusiasm of the American public. And that’s why I think he stands alone among the 20th century’s great American leaders.