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Ronald Reagan: An American Statesman - 2004-06-10

Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the "evil empire" and devoted his presidency to bringing it down. But on his death, he received a glowing tribute from a former president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

He wrote in The New York Times that while President Reagan rebuilt America's military might and challenged Soviet Communism in his first term, he became a peacemaker in his second. The two leaders engaged in a dialogue that ended the Cold War and President Reagan said the Soviet Union was no longer an evil empire.

Some hard-line Reagan supporters were aghast at this turn of events. But Don Regan, who served as Reagan's chief of staff, says this was his plan from the beginning: "Reagan's every action in foreign policy had been carried out with the idea of one day sitting down with the leader of the USSR and banning weapons of mass destruction from the planet."

Martin Anderson, a top economic and domestic adviser to President Reagan, came across a speech he gave in 1963:

"He laid out a policy, a path to defeat the Soviet Union. He said, 'Look, they cannot keep up. If we really start to compete, if we really have an arms race, they will try to keep up with us, and they will collapse. And then we as a good nation, after they collapse, will hold out our hand and work with them.' - which is what happened."

Lee Edwards, a senior analyst at the Heritage Foundation, says before his presidency, Mr. Reagan told a friend how he would handle the Cold War: "It's very simple. We win and they lose."

That attitude stunned official Washington, says Mr. Edwards, an early biographer of Reagan. Reagan was considered reckless with no regard for nuance. Reagan had a different opinion:

"He always saw himself as someone who was outside of politics. He called himself a citizen politician even after he had been governor for eight years and president for eight years. So he had no difficulty whatsoever in taking on and challenging the establishment."

But the establishment found it hard to forgive him, says Mr. Anderson. People were misled by his folksiness and story telling. Government by anecdote, they scoffed. They all start with the premise that he was not too smart, that he was friendly and nice, and he had these smart people like me handing him these pieces of paper and he read them. One thing that we have discovered in recent years is that all that is completely false.

Mr. Anderson says he has perused several thousand notes and letters written by Reagan that are now available in two books, Reagan in His Own Hand and Reagan: The Life and Letters. They reveal a very inquiring mind. Lee Edwards says he once visited Reagan at his home:

"I went to his library and began pulling out all these books on history and politics and economics and biography and noticing that they were not only read but annotated, dog-eared. Here was not just a very graceful and handsome man but somebody who was obviously, a thinking conservative."

But not a dogmatic one. He did not bark orders, says Don Regan. He did not even like to give them. He never bullied, threatened, cajoled. "Just make sure I hear both sides of every issue," he told Mr. Regan, "and if there are more than two sides, I want to hear all of them. I don't mind making decisions as long as I know what everybody thinks." He also enjoyed exchanging ideas with foreign leaders, whatever their politics.

It was this ability that turned opinion around, says Ken Tomlinson, chairman of the board of governors of the International Broadcasting Bureau who traveled frequently with Reagan in the 1980 campaign.

"Conservatism was looked down upon by the elites in America and the elites around the world," he says. "So in part people looked down on Reagan because of his conservatism. But as he served as President, he became known as 'the great communicator', and people, including Democrats and liberals in the United States, came to like him personally. So he became a good salesman for his points of view."

Concerned with the big picture, President Reagan left the details to others. When they kept to the script, there was no problem. When they went astray, the Iran-Contra scandal resulted: selling arms to Iran to release hostages and using the money to fund the anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua.

Those looking for the source of Reagan's anti-communism should consider his Hollywood years, says Mr. Anderson. Then an ardent liberal Democrat, Reagan became embroiled with Communist organizers in the union movement.

"While he was head of the Screen Actors Guild," says Mr. Anderson, "they had strikes. They threatened him physically. They threatened to throw acid in his face. It got so bad that he was issued a 38-caliber gun, a Smith and Wesson. He packed a loaded pistol for a long time."

After that encounter, his politics shifted, leading him to the Republican Party and on to California Governor and U.S. President.