Ronald Reagan's Legacy

Were his successes the result of single-minded devotion to one idea?

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The Gipper. The Great Communicator. The Teflon President. Bonzo. The epithets for Ronald Reagan came and went, and some of them stuck. But in the decade and a half between the end of his presidency and his final, quiet withdrawal from life's stage, something more solid than the epithets began to define him, something resembling a verdict of history. And if not quite a verdict, it is at least a provisional consensus, often taking the form of a question: Was Ronald Reagan the great hedgehog of 20th-century politics--a president who achieved so much because of his single-minded devotion to one idea?

[See photos of Ronald Reagan's life.]

The Greek poet Archilochus said it first: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Yet it was philosopher Isaiah Berlin's 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, that gave the metaphor its modern currency and deeper meaning. Berlin suggested that writers and thinkers, and possibly all human beings, could be separated into two broad groups: those who are absorbed with one all-consuming vision (hedgehogs) and those who pursue many disparate ends (foxes). Plato and Dante were hedgehogs, Berlin suggested, while Aristotle and Shakespeare were foxes. It requires little guessing to say how Berlin would have labeled the 40th president: Reagan's devotion to the principles of liberty and freedom--and his equally firm and optimistic belief that America, the shining "city upon a hill," was the best hope for the preservation and extension of those ideals--would make him the consummate political hedgehog.

But was Reagan's fealty to his ideals the driving force that revitalized the economy and morale of a nation adrift? Was it the crucial factor in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War? Or is the hedgehog comparison simply a distraction, an accolade bestowed by admirers upon a spectacularly lucky ideologue whose penchant for blending fantasy with reality happened to coincide with momentous changes in American and global politics? Answering those questions seems a necessary step toward seeing where Reagan may stand in the more distant judgments of history.

It is not surprising that admirers, including most Republicans, tend toward the former interpretation, while most critics, including a goodly number of Democrats, lean toward the latter. What is surprising, though, is how many of the critically inclined have slowly drifted toward the more positive assessment. One survey of presidential rankings among a select group of academic historians and political scientists (a generally liberal-leaning cohort) shows Reagan going from No. 22 in the year after he left office to No. 16 in 2002. Even more favorably, a 2000 C-SPAN poll of historians and biographers put Reagan at No. 11. Presidential historian Richard Reeves, now working on a biography of Reagan, considers himself a critic of the 40th president. But, as he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer last week, after conducting hundreds of interviews with both Reagan's allies and his foes, "it's pretty hard not to conclude . . . that whether or not he was a great president, Ronald Reagan was a great man, in the sense that he changed the way people thought."

Judging by the nonstop lovefest put on by the mainstream electronic and print media during the week after Reagan's death, it's also hard not to conclude that journalists are another largely liberal cohort that has been won over to the positive assessment. To be sure, there have been the almost obligatory mentions of failings, misdeeds, and controversies--above all, the Iran-contra scandal and Reagan's initial denial of wrongdoing. There have also been reminders of the inattention to the spreading AIDS epidemic, the widening economic inequalities that accompanied the go-go boom of the 1980s, and, of course, the soaring budget deficit and a near tripling of the national debt. The contradictions have been noted as well, including a federal government that expanded despite Reagan's promise to make it shrink.