RONALD REAGAN 1911-2004: A President Whose Optimism Earned Him a Place in History ; He Was a Product of Simpler Times, but Ronald Reagan's Administration Gave Birth to the Politics of the Television Age, Writes Rupert Cornwell

Article excerpt

IF YOU seek his monument, look around. In Washington there is Ronald Reagan National Airport and the vast Ronald Reagan International Trade Centre. Across the rest of the country, there are stretches of Ronald Reagan highway and Ronald Reagan plazas. Soon, if the Republicans in Congress who venerate him have their way, his face will appear in everybody's pocket, adorning the humble dime.

If the measure is approved, the 40th president will share the 10 cent coin with Franklin D Roosevelt, the sole president, arguably, over the past century to have done more to change America and the world.

But perhaps the greatest monument to Mr Reagan is the White House itself: not the physical building, with its handsome colonnade and Neo-Classical grace, but the White House of political shorthand, denoting the administration of the day. Imitation, it is said, is the sincerest form of flattery. At the moment of his death Mr Reagan lives on today above all as the animating model for the 43rd president, George Bush.

The parallels are imperfect, but uncanny none the less. Mr Reagan improbably rode into the highest political office as a movie star from Hollywood. If anything, Mr Bush, and the cowboy image thrust upon him, carry the notion a step further. Mr Bush models himself not on his father, but on the man who preceded his father. Like Mr Reagan, Mr Bush has governed from the right. Both men are noted for their fondness for the big picture.

Like Mr Reagan, this president prides himself for having "the vision thing". The details, however important, can be left to others. Like Mr Reagan, Mr Bush lacks an intellectual curiosity. Last but not least, both men have had the great good fortune to be frequently underestimated by their opponents during their ascent to power.

A quarter of a century ago they sneered at Mr Reagan, just as they sneer at Mr Bush today. "An amiable dunce", was the considered judgement of Clark Clifford, the worldly consigliere of Democratic presidents for three decades, at one of those Georgetown dinner parties that once were the pinnacle of the Washington social scene.

Mr Clifford was speaking in September 1981, when such was the liberal orthodoxy about the former California governor who had captured the White House. How easy it was to mock about this genial ingenue, with his well- known reliance on scripts and a world view that did not extend beyond a set of cue cards. Later, the prevailing view was even more brutal, that Mr Reagan was simply out of it; at the helm of a three-quarters detached presidency, in which Nancy Reagan and her astrologer pulled the strings.

Under Mr Reagan, the teleguided presidency of the 21st century truly began. He was the first chief executive sealed in a bubble, whose every utterance and every step was scripted, for whom presentation was everything, style has supplanted substance and armies of handlers and minders made sure that nothing was left to chance. They called him the "great communicator". The description was faint praise, carrying the implication that it didn't matter what was in the package, as long as the wrapping paper was pretty.

Mr Reagan could come across as the ultimate hands-off president, unknowing and uncaring as the gap between rich and poor grew. His second term witnessed an epidemic of Wall Street greed that prefigured the scandals of the Bush era, as well as a savings and loan bank debacle that cost the US taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars.

Foreign policy

Seen through a certain prism, his foreign policy too was equally uncaring and damaging. It was the Reagan administration whose support for Saddam Hussein arguably set in motion the events that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq ordered by Mr Bush. Mr Reagan was an earlier US president who gave free rein to Israel, with its 1982 invasion of Lebanon (which, in turn, led to the worst day of his presidency, when a suicide bomber blew up a US barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines. …