The Paradox of President Reagan's Leadership

Article excerpt

Ronald Reagan was a larger-than-life individual, a formidable politician, and an important president. But as in all presidents, his character was complex, resulting in a presidency of paradoxes, marked by some great successes and some unfortunate failures. We cannot celebrate his successes without recognizing his failures, and we cannot criticize his failures without recognizing his important contributions. His legacy is not as unblemished as his hagiographers claim nor can it be easily dismissed, as some of his detractors maintain.

Both Reagan's successes and failures stemmed from his character and style of political leadership. Reagan's optimism, geniality, and gracious nature appealed to his opponents as well as his followers (1) (Heclo 2009, 31). The great strength of his optimism stemmed from his conviction that most governmental problems were simple and amenable to simple solutions. (2) But as Elliot Richardson often observed, "we all have the defects of our virtues." (3) The paradox of President Reagan's leadership was that his certainty about simple problems and faith in simple solutions was the source of his political strength as well as some of his failures) He projected simple certainty and exuded confidence, but his actions and policies, in important ways, belied his public image.

Reagan's broad vision and clear direction made his political ideals appealing. But paradoxically, what made his policy victories possible was his willingness, when faced with political reality, to make pragmatic compromises without seeming to abandon his ideals. He is remembered as a tax cutter, but he signed some of the largest tax increases in U.S. history. He is remembered as standing firm against terrorism, yet he withdrew Marines from Lebanon after a terrorist bombing, and he traded arms for hostages. He championed huge increases in defense spending, yet he almost bargained away the U.S. nuclear stockpile. He believed in law and order, but he allowed his White House to break the law by selling arms to Iran and funding the Contras in Nicaragua. He was a staunch foe of communism, yet he led the country to a new understanding of Russia. This article will examine these paradoxes by analyzing the Reagan administration's transition into office, the contrasting White House staffs of his two terms, and the high and low points of his national security policies.

Transition, Personnel, and Budgets

Because of the fear of seeming to be presumptuous of electoral victory, presidential transitions had traditionally not been undertaken with much serious planning. In recognizing his lack of preparation for the White House, John Kennedy told Clark Clifford, "If I am elected, I do not want to wake up on them morning of November 9 and have to ask myself, 'What in the world do I do now?'" (Schlesinger 1965, 118.). So he asked Clifford and Richard Neustadt confidentially to prepare memos of advice to him about initial steps to take between election and inauguration. At Kennedy's urging, the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 provided government funding for future transition expenses.

Future incoming presidents used the funds, but Jimmy Carter was the first president to undertake transition planning systematically, with policy planning and personnel operations in Atlanta that moved to Washington after the election. The Reagan transition team, however, took transition planning and operations to an entirely new level of organization. The planning began in April 1980 and involved hundreds of people and scores of task forces under the direction of Richard Allen and Martin Anderson.

The 1980-81 transition was headed by an elaborate superstructure that included five top-level Reagan supporters and seven deputy directors. Operationally, the transition was directed by Edwin Meese and William Timmons. In contrast to Kennedy, Carter, and Richard Nixon, Reagan established his transition headquarters in Washington, DC, in a large office building several blocks from the White House. …

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