NATCHITOCHES, La., February 4, 2011 - Sunday marks the hundredth birthday of Ronald Reagan. He’s viewed by admirers and critics alike as a “transformational” president, a president whose profound influence changed America and the world. To his conservative admirers he’s the paragon of all that’s good in a leader. The enmity of his critics has burned down to a grudging respect.
Reagan lived the most public of lives - actor, union leader, radio commentator, governor, President of the United States - yet for all that he’s hugely misunderstood. He’s caricatured as the “great communicator” or as a right-wing ideologue and “amiable dunce.” Republicans have searched for years for the next Ronald Reagan; his mantle is the most potent political talisman of the Right. Pretenders come and go, but so far none is the real deal. This is because Republicans misunderstand Reagan as badly as Democrats do.
Ronald Reagan has been praised by conservatives and scorned by liberals for the strength and purity of his ideology. He projected a powerful sense of moral clarity, but it’s a gross mistake to paint him as an ideologue. It’s a mistake his conservative admirers make as quickly as his detractors.
They do it when they focus on message. “If only we could speak to core conservative themes,” they say, “we’d capture the American electorate. Polls tell us that Americans are much more conservative than liberal, so a clear conservative stance can only help win elections, can’t it?”
It can help, but it’s not enough. Nor is it enough to be a great communicator. Anyone who thinks that it is has a condescending opinion of “regular Americans”: Give us a pretty face and frame the message properly and we’re yours. Didn’t it work for Reagan? Didn’t it work for Barak Obama?
Yes and no. It’s hard to recall the tingle in Chris Matthews’ leg and the lapdog adulation at MSNBC without a shudder of contempt, but there were other factors than slick marketing at play. A bad economy, an unpopular incumbent, and an unconvincing Republican candidate helped deliver the election to Obama. It helped that Obama has a nimble mind.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t just the great communicator of a clear ideological message; he was a man who understood his message. He’d honed it over decades, he’d learned the issues, he’d educated himself in a way that few politicians do. Here was a man who didn’t just communicate a well-framed message, but who believed his message with every fiber of his being. Much more than a true believer, Reagan was an informed and thoughtful believer.
A lot of very smart men and women go into politics. They surround themselves with armies of smart and well-educated aides. They hire pollsters and marketing professionals, they assemble focus groups, they design just the right message and then they hone it to razor sharpness.
These people are like the brilliant, ambitious students you run into on the best college campuses. With nimble minds and easy fluency, they put together papers and presentations that wow their classmates and are as shallow as paint. The problem is that smart people can often get by without taking the time to master a subject. More importantly, even when they master lists of details, they haven’t lived enough outside their bubble to understand what is and isn’t important. They mistake data for understanding and passionate intensity for conviction.
Reagan was one of those less flashy B students who have learned the importance of hard work. Unable to absorb the bright surface of the material at a glance, they work long and hard to understand what’s underneath it. They understand their own limitations and so spend time with people who can teach them and carry them beyond their own abilities, not with other very smart people who spend their time congratulating each other on their smartness.
You can fool all of the people some of the time. Glib, smart politicians win elections by framing their message, but they don’t impress us for long and they don’t make deep and lasting changes to our country or the world. They pass laws without changing hearts. Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have been the Great Communicator for all those years if he hadn’t had something to say. His greatness wasn’t artifice; it was substance married to sincerity.
The mantle of Ronald Reagan won’t fall on the smart politician who lacks conviction. It won’t fall on the sincere and conservative politician who hasn’t worked hard to master the ideas behind the beliefs. It won’t fall on the pious conservative who’s on the right side of a checklist of issues. It will fall only on the prepared “moral conservative,” the conservative who might come to different conclusions than pious conservatives on some important issues, but who gets there through conservative principles, careful thought, and hard-won understanding.
Reagan’s mantle will fall on the politician who has faith in the fundamental goodness of the American people, who’s willing to trust them to make their own choices, and who understands that the terrible power of the state must be leashed at all times by the principles of the Constitution.
As jockeying for the GOP presidential nomination enters high gear, the various hopefuls will all claim a share of the Reagan mantle. So far it doesn’t look like a good fit for any of them. They haven’t convinced most of us that they have the joyful faith and the clear, informed vision of Ronald Reagan. But people grow if they work at it (do you hear that, Mrs. Palin?), and Reagan would have been the first to say so. He’s the patron saint of those who work hard to transform the ordinary into the remarkable. He showed us that greatness isn’t a matter of ideology or marketing, but of character.
Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and the rest might yet claim Reagan’s mantle, if only they have the humility and the faith to do it.
James Picht teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love and there he stayed. Now he teaches, takes pictures, and with wife Lisa raises two children. He used to love Ronald Reagan. Now he admires him. He tweets and has a blog at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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