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Trigger-Happy Bush Is No Reagan

August 22, 2004|Lou Cannon

Ronald Reagan will be honored at the Republican National Convention as an enduring leader of his party. This is appropriate, for Reagan transformed a divided GOP into a united conservative party that worships free enterprise, unrestrained tax cuts, military preparedness and the world leadership of the United States of America.

Indeed, without Reagan, it is unlikely Republicans would be running the country today. He lifted the spirits of Americans at a time of national disillusionment when politics was still suffering from the lingering virus of Watergate. In 1976, he inspired conservatives by challenging President Ford for the Republican nomination. After a narrow loss, he swept aside a Republican field in 1980 and then defeated President Carter. In 1984 Reagan was reelected in a momentous landslide, winning 49 states. His vice president, George H.W. Bush, won in 1988 in an election widely seen as expressing the desire of voters for a third Reagan term.

Reagan remained a hero to his party after he left office and a sympathetic figure to nearly all Americans after he developed Alzheimer's disease, which eventually led to his death on June 5. His ideas continue to have impact. Then-Rep. Newt Gingrich's vaunted "contract with America," the platform on which Republicans gained control of the House in 1994, was basically a compendium of proposals plucked from a Reagan State of the Union speech.

President George W. Bush and his apostles welcome comparisons of his forceful presidency to Reagan's, even more so than to the presidency of his father. According to Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security advisor, Bush resembles Reagan in his devotion to freedom and in a foresighted ability to see around the bend in the road of history. Reagan built up U.S. military forces, called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and challenged the legitimacy of the Soviet system. He foresaw a democratic Russia, much as Bush now envisions flourishing Arab democracies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region.

We learned in school that an analogy is a comparison in which essential similarities outweigh essential differences. The Reagan-Bush analogy falls short by this test. Reagan did indeed cut taxes -- usefully, in a severe recession -- but he also twice raised them in the name of "tax reform" after the economy improved. On foreign policy Reagan believed from the outset that the massive military buildup he advocated would bring the Soviets to the bargaining table. In June 1980, before he was nominated, Reagan told the Washington Post that the Soviets would be unable economically to compete with the United States in an intensified arms race and would negotiate instead.

Reagan believed strongly in the Western alliance and NATO -- and he abhorred the idea of preemptive war. Indeed, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who also worried about an accidental nuclear conflict, leaped ahead of their foreign ministers during a summit at Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986 in proposing abolition of nuclear weapons. This meeting, initially seen as a failure, led to treaties reducing the nuclear arsenals of both sides and contributed to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Militarily, Reagan was more cautious than either President Bush. Even his controversial covert aid to the Nicaraguan Contras was undertaken as an alternative to the direct U.S. military intervention suggested by his first secretary of State, Alexander Haig. Reagan did send U.S. troops into Lebanon as part of an international military force. After 241 U.S. servicemen, mostly Marines, were killed on Oct. 23, 1983, by a suicide bomber who drove a truck into their headquarters, Reagan soon began the process of withdrawal.

Reagan called this disaster "the saddest day of my presidency, perhaps the saddest day of my life," and he was determined that it not be repeated. According to George Shultz, who replaced Haig as secretary of State in 1982, Reagan rejected a proposal near the end of his presidency to send U.S. troops to Panama to topple strongman Manuel Noriega. Reagan said this would cost the lives of U.S. troops and innocent Panamanians, as it subsequently did when the first President Bush carried out the operation.

Reagan deserves the iconic status that Republicans will accord him when they convene in Madison Square Garden. But the record suggests he would have been far more reluctant than the current president and his cheerleaders to lead the nation into war.

Lou Cannon is the author of five books on Ronald Reagan, including "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power" (PublicAffairs, 2003).

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