Leadership by Exemplar: Reagan's FDR and Thatcher's Churchill

By Abbott, Philip | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview
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Leadership by Exemplar: Reagan's FDR and Thatcher's Churchill


Abbott, Philip, Presidential Studies Quarterly


As prominent as the fall of communism and the struggles for democratization in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been, there were two "revolutions" in the West that immediately preceded the close of the Cold War. The Reagan and Thatcher revolutions have frequently been compared and conflated into a single phenomenon variously theorized as a project of bourgeois restoration, populist resurgence, or libertarian reaffirmation.(1) Whatever theoretical construction has been employed, however, the two revolutions proceeded from a remarkably similar set of national conditions (declining power in the international system; slow economic growth; distrust in the performance of basic institutions) and followed strikingly similar goals (strong defense and reassertion of national interest; reintroduction of market forces as the central focus of public policy; reaffirmation of traditional values).

As leaders of constitutional revolutions, both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher implemented their programs through the conventional avenues of modern politics, that is, through legislative reform, electoral mandate, and media manipulation. Thus both leaders were required to locate their programs in terms of recognizable political symbols. While as regime actors in nations with strong, if not exclusive, liberal heritages both Reagan and Thatcher enjoyed the benefits of a political discourse congenial to their projects, both leaders were also forced to confront two enormously powerful exemplars of liberal democratic politics--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill--whose actions and words required reinterpretation for their own respective revolutions.(2) Although neither figure was completely uncontested in contemporary politics, both personas represented heroic national projects which required symbolic imitation as well as revision through indirection. This article examines Reagan's "readings" of FDR and Thatcher's of Churchill in order to suggest how both leaders broke the post-war consensus so sharply and successfully. The difference in the symbolic relationships created between Reagan/FDR and Thatcher/Churchill also provide some preliminary distinctions in executive leadership and political culture in the United States and Great Britain.

Remembering FDR

The monumental status of FDR has stood as an obstacle to all post-war presidents and presidential aspirants. Democratic successors found that a contemporary liberal "measures politicians by the memory of Franklin Roosevelt" as they attempted to formulate policies for their generation. Political necessity required obeisance to FDR's New Deal but, as John Kennedy once complained, 1933 is not 1963 and "what was fine for Roosevelt simply would not work today . . ."(3) For Republicans, however, FDR's achievements (from the creation of the American welfare state to U.S. participation in the United Nations) have been centrally contested. Eisenhower, for example, wrote in his memoirs that he hoped that his administration would be remembered as "the first break with the political philosophy of the decades beginning in 1933."(4) Nevertheless, Republican presidents have often been forced to reach accommodations with "New Deal socialism" and to reinterpret FDR's internationalism.

The notable exception to this pattern of hostile accommodation is Ronald Reagan.(5) More than any post-Roosevelt president, Reagan successfully challenged the authority of FDR and initiated his own "revolution" in American politics. Yet the achievements of the "Reagan revolution" were constructed from unusual elements. Reagan always referred to Roosevelt as his "idol." His "Time for Choosing" speech, however, connected the New Deal to Karl Marx and later he contended that New Dealers used fascism as their policy model.(6) This paralleling of strident critiques of the New Deal and imitative gestures toward FDR characterized Reagan's entire presidency. Reagan repeatedly and readily admitted that he was a Roosevelt supporter and portrayed the New Deal in the Satanic mode of the new American right.

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