Thursday, January 20, 2011

This Day in History: Inauguration of President Ronald Reagan

Exactly 30 years ago today:

And see USA Today, "Ronald Reagan: A 'Folklore' President Who Led a Revolution":
Thirty years ago, Reagan was sworn in as president of a downbeat nation that elected him despite concerns about his age — at 69, he would be the oldest president in history at inauguration — and his ideology. Was he too hawkish toward the Soviet Union, too hostile to social safety-net programs?

Now his estimation by presidential scholars and the American people continues to rise, though skeptics say acolytes exaggerate his legacy.

In a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, nearly one-third of Americans predict history will judge him an outstanding president, double the number who held that view when he left office. Among modern presidents, only John Kennedy gets higher ratings.

A C-SPAN survey of 65 historians in 2009 ranked Reagan near the top tier of presidents, 10th of 42. A Siena College poll of 238 presidential scholars in 2010 put him in the middle range, 18th of 43, though he ranked in the top five for communication skills, leadership of his party — and luck.

His two terms marked "a clear turning of a chapter" from the Great Society liberalism of the 1960s to a new conservatism, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley says. And his personal connection to many Americans endures.

Adding to his story: surviving an assassination attempt with reassuring humor two months after his inauguration in 1981, and leaving the public scene in 1994 with a letter to the American people revealing his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.

He was 93 when he died June 5, 2004.

"He's become a folklore president," says Brinkley, who edited Reagan's diaries. "He's as much Buffalo Bill or Kit Carson as he is Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson."

Admirers credit Reagan with ending the Cold War — he both increased defense spending by a third and embraced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev— and reviving the economy. After the unhappy tenures of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, Reagan returned a sense of optimism and buoyancy to the White House.

"No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan — and I certainly had my share — there is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America," President Obama says in an appreciation written for USA TODAY.

"It was a hell of a record," says James Baker, who ran the campaign of Reagan's chief rival in the 1980 GOP primaries and then became Reagan's White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary. "What I mean is, you did have 25 years of sustained, non-inflationary growth. You had a restoration of the country's pride and confidence in itself. You had peace. What more could you ask for?"

Since Reagan left the White House in 1989, just about every Republican presidential hopeful has sought to claim his mantle, including those weighing bids for next year's nomination.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has co-produced a documentary of Reagan's life called Rendezvous With Destiny; he'll screen it in Tampico at the town's centennial celebration of its most famous son.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin routinely quotes Reagan in her Facebook postings. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence's paean to American exceptionalism recalls Reagan's oft-repeated description of the United States as a "shining city on a hill."
Read the whole thing.

The Sienna presidential poll is not to be trusted, as I reported earlier, "
Who Are the 238 Presidential Scholars, Historians, and Political Scientists Polled for the SRI Presidential Rankings?"

I think the USA Today/Gallup rankings sound reasonable. And speaking of ranking, at CNN, "
CNN Poll: JFK Remains Most Popular Past President." And Althouse has the nostalgia, "Half a century ago, the inauguration of JFK."

JFK died when I was two year-old. He'll always be one of my favorites, but Reagan and George W. Bush are tops for me.