Remembering Ronald Reagan

The course of his presidency was full of potholes, wrong turns, detours, and unexpected obstacles.

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Reagan saw himself as a man of conviction, but he was not above cutting a deal to get results. He vowed not to make concessions to terrorists but sent arms to Iran in an attempt to win the freedom of Americans held hostage in Lebanon. The resulting scandal almost destroyed his presidency.

On social issues, Reagan hewed to a hard conservative line, opposing abortion, supporting prayer in schools, favoring the abolition of the Departments of Education and Energy, backing tough anticrime bills, appointing conservative judges to the bench, and opening public lands to private development.

One question will dominate historians' assessments of the Reagan era: Did his policies cause, or at least hasten, the collapse of communism? Reagan's defenders say his defense buildup--he increased military spending from $185 billion in 1982 to nearly $304 billion in 1989--and his relentless diplomatic and military pressure and covert actions broke the back of communism, an achievement of profound importance. But his critics argue that communism was collapsing anyway, a victim of its own excesses and structural flaws, and say Reagan wasted billions of dollars on a fool's errand.

The available evidence suggests a middle ground. Anatoly Chernyaev, one of Mikhail Gorbachev's closest aides, believes Reagan's policies were neither inconsequential nor overwhelmingly decisive in forcing the Kremlin's hand. Instead, those policies served as a contributing factor pushing Gorbachev toward political and economic reforms at home and arms-control agreements with the West.

[Read Reagan Son Claims Dad Had Alzheimer's as President.]

Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative was a constant preoccupation in Moscow. Gorbachev worried that SDI would escalate the arms race to undreamed-of levels, straining Soviet resources to the breaking point, and this fear helped to push him toward accommodation, even though such a system remains unproven. By 1986, Reagan was so convinced that Gorbachev was a practical-minded reformer that he almost took one of the most dangerous gambles in the history of superpower relations. When the two men met again during a wintry October weekend in Reykjavik, Iceland, their talks started with great promise. Gorbachev expressed his willingness to eliminate all Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe. Talks quickly moved into dangerous territory: Reagan, to the consternation of his hard-line aides, said he would be willing to eliminate all U.S. nuclear weapons if the Soviets did the same. That, Reagan's experts agreed later, would have been a massive error that would have made the West vulnerable to Moscow's huge advantage in conventional forces. Only when Gorbachev insisted that Reagan abandon SDI did the president balk. The summit quickly broke down.

It was his anticommunism that aides appealed to in persuading Reagan to send missiles to Iran, warning of growing Soviet influence there. That gambit, coupled with Reagan's disengaged management style, produced his worst foreign-policy debacle. Then a few of the president's men compounded the damage by diverting the proceeds from missile sales to another anticommunist crusade, the contra rebels in Nicaragua. For months starting in late 1986, the administration was battered by charges of illegality and deception. Reagan himself was widely blamed for either approving the gambit directly or for failing to pay enough attention to what was going on in his own government. Amid concern that he was losing his grip, the 76-year-old commander in chief endured a rapid decline in his job approval rating among voters.

Gradually, however, things turned around. Increasingly prosperous and secure, Americans lost interest in the scandal, and Reagan's popularity rebounded. He was, his critics complained, a "Teflon president."

Through the ups and downs, Reagan carried himself without the sense of burden that plagued so many of his predecessors. Early in his presidency, Reagan told a friend he didn't understand why Jimmy Carter had complained so much about the demands of office. "This job isn't all that tough," Reagan said. "The big problem is all these meetings. Once you get used to them, you just realize you set a course and stay with it." He did, often leaving the Oval Office about 5 p.m. to have an early dinner with Nancy. At 69, he was the oldest man ever elected president, and he was careful to give himself plenty of time to relax (though that didn't prevent him from dozing during cabinet meetings). He took long weekends at Camp David and spent weeks in seclusion at his Santa Barbara, Calif., ranch every summer.