After the shellacking he took in the November 2010 election, President Barack Obama began retooling his message and his image. Over his Christmas vacation in Hawaii, he read Lou Cannon's President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Mr. Obama apparently thinks that if he can learn how to play the role of a Reaganesque president, he can become as successful as my father, Ronald Reagan.
President Obama does a poor Reagan impression, but it was good enough to fool the media elites. After his State of the Union performance, CBS analyst Jeff Greenfield said that Obama struck "rhetorical notes that reminded me of Mr. Reagan." NBC's Andrea Mitchell said Obama evoked "the optimism, the can-do spirit that brings to mind Ronald Reagan." And ABC's Christiane Amanpour found the speech "full of sunny optimism, very Reaganesque." The latest cover of Time is a Photoshopped imaged of Dad and Obama standing together like old pals.
So if Obama's goal was to imitate Reagan for one night, mission accomplished. But I think Mr. Obama was misled by that title, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Ronald Reagan didn't see the presidency as a "role." My father was one of the most honest and authentic chief executives this nation has ever had.
Ironically, while many presidents have pretended to be something they're not, Ronald Reagan—the professional actor—was the real deal as President. He lived out his private values in his public life. Even my father's opponents had to admit that his word was his bond.
In July 1981, he promised Democrat congressmen that if they would support the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, he would not go to their districts and campaign against them. As a result, many Democrats stood with him and passed ERTA—and Dad kept his pledge.
In 1985, Ronald Reagan pressured the Soviet Union to release five dissidents from prison. The Soviets agreed—on one condition: The United States could not announce the release. The Soviets didn't want to be seen as caving to U.S. pressure. The prisoner release would have been a huge PR coup for the Reagan administration—but Ronald Reagan kept his word. The Soviets released the dissidents—and the United States kept mum.
Dad kept his word to my sister Maureen. She and Dad were on opposite sides of the Equal Rights Amendment. Maureen was for it, Dad was opposed. Though Dad supported equal rights for women, he believed women already had equality under the 14th Amendment. So in 1980, Dad offered Maureen a deal: If she'd stop talking about the ERA during the campaign, he would appoint a woman as his first Supreme Court nominee. Maureen agreed—and Dad appointed Sandra Day O'Connor in July 1981.
Mikhail Gorbachev once called my father a "true leader, a man of his word and an optimist." Democrat Senator John Kerry once said, "Even when he was breaking Democrats' hearts, he did so with a smile and in the spirit of honest and open debate. The differences were real, but because of the way President Reagan led, he taught us that there is a big difference between strong beliefs and bitter partisanship."
America needs a Reaganesque leader once more—a leader whose honor and integrity wins praise from friends and adversaries alike. When our leaders do not keep their word, America suffers.
Today, America is led by a president who promised us transparent government, an end to earmarks in spending bills, no lobbyists in his administration, no recess appointments, a net spending cut, no tax increases on the middle class, a secure border, closing of the detention facility at Guantánamo within a year, the airing of the healthcare debate on C-SPAN, and placing all non-emergency legislation on the White House website for five days before signing. He has not kept even one of those promises.
Barack Obama gets a pass for his broken promises because Americans have become cynical, and no longer expect the truth from politicians. I think much of this cynicism can be traced to 1998, the Year of Lewinsky, when an American president wagged his finger at us and said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." When that statement turned out to be a lie, the Democrats defended him on the grounds that "everybody lies about sex." So it became okay to lie to the American people.
Now that Barack Obama's promises turn out to be as empty as Keith Olbermann's soul, does anybody call him on it? Nope. We expect Obama to break his word. We have dropped our standards. We settle for leaders who lie.
In 1965, Ronald Reagan was considering a run for governor of California. Justin Dart, head of the Rexall drugstore chain, invited Dad to his office for a meeting. Dad was acquainted with Mr. Dart and had appeared in several films with Dart's wife, actress Jane Bryan. Mr. Dart had a lot of savvy political advice for Dad. As the meeting came to a close, Mr. Dart pointed to a paper sack and said, "That's for you."
"What is it?"
"Open it and see."
Dad picked up the sack and looked inside. It was filled with money— $40,000 in cash. Dad looked up sharply. "What's this for?"
"When you're running for governor," the drugstore king said, "you're not able to go out and make a living. So this is a little something for you and Nancy."
Dad closed the sack and threw it at Mr. Dart. He was furious!
"Do you think you're going to own me?" he said. "I've changed my mind. If that's what being governor is all about, I don't want the job!"
Dad stormed out, leaving the Rexall exec staring open-mouthed.
Three days later, Dart coaxed my father back into his office for a second meeting. Dart began by apologizing for offering the bribe.
Dad heard him out, then said, "Listen, I've decided to run for governor. But I want one thing understood: My personal office is not open to you. You will have to go through the normal channels like everybody else."
"I understand," Dart said—then he added. "I've never met a politician like you. They all take the money."
"Mr. Dart," Dad said, "I am not a politician." And he left.
In time, Dad and Justin Dart became close friends. The Rexall executive became one of Dad's strongest supporters. Why? Because Ronald Reagan was something rare in this world—an honest man in politics.
He didn't lie to us. He didn't play a role. He was the real deal.
Michael Reagan is the son of President Ronald Reagan and a political consultant. He is the founder and chairman of The Reagan Group and president of The Reagan Legacy Foundation. Visit his website at www.reagan.com. Portions of this column are adapted from his book "The New Reagan Revolution (St. Martin's Press)." Copyright © 2011 Michael Reagan.