What was most unique about Ronald Reagan was his inner compass, his internalized sense of himself. Most politicians are narcissists. They lack a sure grasp of who they are and seek not only ratification but also self-definition in the eyes of others.
Hollywood, like Washington, is filled with narcissists. But Reagan spanned both cultures without needing to find his persona in the adoring eyes of either the film-going or the voting public.
A narcissist needs a mirror so that he can see himself, and measure his self-worth, in the reflected opinions of others. But narcissists don’t want just any mirror. The more beautiful, bright, charismatic, charming and attractive people are, the more psychologically nurturing they are as a mirror for the narcissist.
The affinity of Hollywood and Washington is rooted in the need of each for a mirror. The narcissists in politics and those in entertainment love to gaze adoringly at one another, telling each other how fabulous they are. Indeed, they likely both entered their respective professions precisely to seek mirrors for self-validation.
The amazing thing about Reagan is that, coming from one of these perverted cultures and entering into the midst of the other, he was no narcissist. The power of his presidency lay in precisely the opposite direction. It was his ability to defy the conventional wisdom and march off in a direction dictated by his own insights, not popular consensus, that led him to reverse a century of growing government and a decade of national enfeeblement.
Every time he stepped onto a film set, Reagan assumed an alternate persona. That was his job. But, as president, Reagan played himself. As a result, freed from the need to seek public approval for self-approval, he was able to impart his vision to his nation. Where other presidents let the times imprint them, Reagan shaped, molded and fundamentally altered his era.
So massive was the influence of this one man who spoke and thought for himself that he shaped the agenda not just of his followers but of his political adversaries as well.
Reagan not only dominated his own presidency and that of his immediate successor, but he also cast a giant shadow over the Clinton administration. The major achievement of the Clinton presidency — welfare reform — was a key part of the Reagan vision.
Had it not been for Reagan, the goal of independence for a generation of welfare children would not have been the political objective of a political generation. It fell to Bill Clinton to secure the adoption of the Reagan vision.
Historian David Eisenhower speaks of the role of “ratifiers” in our political culture. Eisenhower notes that a “dynastic” cycle in politics is only completed when an innovator’s policies survive the tenure of his political opponents. In that light, he sees his grandfather Dwight Eisenhower as the ratifier of the FDR New Deal initiatives — the president from the opposing party who did not repeal but further refined the original policies.
And so Clinton was Reagan’s ratifier.
Even when Reagan fell short, as with the deficits he left in his wake, his vision of the importance of a balanced budget shaped his ratifier’s administration. If it was Reagan’s economics that left the budget unbalanced, it was his rhetoric, and the political juggernaut that it mobilized, that forced Newt Gingrich and Clinton to balance it.
Finally, Reagan deserves as much credit for ending the Cold War as FDR does for winning World War II and Woodrow Wilson for winning World War I. Reagan saw that the Soviet Union had not the economic resources to fight the United States and the West in the financial attrition of an arms race.
By cutting off their access to funds by opposing the construction of an oil pipeline to Europe, pushing the Saudis to drop the price of oil and getting the South Africans to deflate the price of gold, Reagan reduced Soviet economic resources. And by bleeding them in Afghanistan and through an accelerated arms race, he strained their economy until it broke.
In sum, Ronald Reagan, in my view, deserves inclusion in the second tier of American presidents. In the first, I would put Washington, Lincoln and FDR. But I equate Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Reagan — Jefferson and Madison for their work in shaping us. But what Jackson, TR, Wilson and Reagan had in common was their ability to reverse course and impart a new dynamic to our nation. Reagan, no less than they, did just that.