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Presidents may seem larger than life while in office, but the global glare quickly shifts to their successors, leaving historians to sort out their legacies.
A few, however, generate a lasting influence on policies and politics. Ronald Reagan, for instance, was so venerated within his party that the term "Reagan Republican" became redundant. Indeed, the differentiation became "Reagan Democrat" — the working-class cohort compelled to abandon long-standing party affiliation to vote for the GOP (and especially the Gipper).
Reagan's imprint endured decades after his White House years, and even after his death. But perceptions of his legacy may be shifting, as evidenced by two recent developments.
The most profound is the top-two Republican presidential prospects signaling a reversal of Reagan's most-notable, and perhaps most noble, belief: That universal values of freedom and democracy can and must triumph over authoritarianism. This belief, backed by rhetoric and action that was a fundamental factor in the West winning the Cold War, was a fixed GOP position even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and other seminal symbols of Communism's implosion.
"Very clearly from the outset of his presidency, Reagan rejected almost all the [Cold War] conventional wisdom," said William Inboden, author of "The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink."
Inboden, the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas, said that Reagan "envisioned a world beyond the Cold War" and believed it "could be ended on favorable terms to the United States with the collapse of the Soviet Union" all while keeping "the Cold War cold."
As with any tectonic shift in history, multiple dynamics converged, acknowledged Inboden, including the arrival of another indispensable individual: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Overall, he added, "there's good evidence that [Reagan's] policies really worked, or at least played a significant role in the eventual good outcome."
Among others ascribing to this view is Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Bowman said that there are a variety of reasons for the triumph, but "one has to put on the shortlist the policies of Ronald Reagan as a major reason why the United States won, and the Soviet Union lost."
Like Inboden, Bowman pointed to other factors and other actors, including developments in Eastern Europe and the moral force of Pope John Paul II. But essential, emphasized Bowman, was Reagan "speaking truth about our adversaries and their nature and their aims, and then backing that up with hard power."
Such Reaganesque clarity is missing from some of today's GOP leaders, however. In fact, an opposite signal has been sent to Kyiv and the Kremlin. For instance, former President Donald Trump has called Russia's invasion "genius" and "savvy" — despite it defying the rules-based international order the postwar U.S. mostly built and benefited from.
The second-most-influential GOP leader, Florida Gov. and presumed presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, told the third — Fox News host and outspoken opponent of U.S. aid to Ukraine Tucker Carlson — that Ukraine is not one of America's vital national interests, reversing his hawkish views during his congressional tenure. (On Wednesday, DeSantis distanced himself from his response to Carlson, saying his views were "mischaracterized," even though they were written responses). For his part, Trump also told Carlson that Ukraine was not a vital strategic interest for America, "but it is for Europe."
Trump's historic hostility to NATO appears to be reflected in his comments, as he seems to separate U.S. and European interests despite the fact that this country is treaty bound to come to the defense of any NATO nation that triggers the collective-defense provision known as Article 5. And the uncertain sound of DeSantis's trumpet puts him more in line with Trump than Reagan.
Reflecting on the candidates' comments, Bowman lamented that "It's not like lessons in Europe stay in Europe." Beijing, Tehran, Pyongyang and other despotic capitals are closely watching Western resolve in its own backyard, he said, and Russian President Vladimir Putin "seems to understand that there are two centers of gravity" that will determine the outcome — Ukrainians' will to fight and Americans' continuing support. Putin's likely convinced on Ukrainian — but maybe not American — endurance.
While historians are cautious about counterfactuals, Inboden said that had the GOP front-runners' positions been applied to the Cold War "it would have ceded the moral high ground to the Kremlin," been demoralizing to dissidents, and "missed the opportunity for the United States to do as Reagan did, which is make a stamp of freedom and apply pressure to what we now know was a vulnerable Soviet Union."
Reagan's resolute nature has also long been believed to be behind an earlier triumph of his presidency: the release of 52 U.S. hostages from Iran just minutes after his 1981 inauguration. But an extraordinary story in Sunday's New York Times brings new questions to that old assumption, making it the second recent reassessment of Reagan's legacy.
The account comes from a late-in-life confession from Ben Barnes, a former Texas Democratic politician, who said that he accompanied his mentor, former Texas Gov. John Connally Jr., on a trip to convince Mideast leaders to get word to the theocracy that if they held the hostages past the election Iran would get a better deal from Reagan than the incumbent, President Jimmy Carter. Connally, Barnes said, then briefed William Casey, Reagan's campaign manager who later became director of the CIA.
"History needs to know this happened," Barnes told the Times.
Whether it did, and whether the Iranians acted accordingly is unknown (it's been denied by many previous administration figures and doubted by some historians, including Inboden). The specter has been the subject of Senate and House investigations that rejected the charge — but those did not hear Barnes' account. And if it did happen, it's unknown if Reagan knew about the scheme.
If he did, it would cast a different light on him. But not on Carter, an honest and earnest president who worked ceaselessly on freeing the hostages up until the last days of his administration, said Gary Sick, a National Security Council staffer who became the point person on Iran in the Carter administration.
Carter "took responsibility for those hostages; they were taken on his watch," Sick said in an interview. "He kept working at it day and night and in fact was instrumental in negotiating the release of the hostages before he left office. That says something about a man's integrity."
Sick, author of "October Surprise," which raised allegations about the Reagan campaign's role in delaying the hostages' release, said he had already spoken to three former captives about the Times story. Not surprisingly, they were upset about Barnes' account, especially since it likely elongated their detainment by at least three months, a "very, very long time to be sequestered in cells."
The "myths that grow up around individuals, leaders, are really very important," said Sick, who added that the belief that the Iranians released the Americans because they were afraid of Reagan "is one myth which I think we can definitely put to bed. They not only had no reason to fear Reagan, but they were actually making a gesture of support for Reagan when they let the hostages go just after he became president."
The "fact that it's been over 40 years — is that going to make people say: Well, that's history, that's the way it is?" Sick rhetorically asked.
Presidential legacies are fluid, not fixed. Barnes' sordid story should factor into Reagan's — if it's true.
What does seem certain, however, is this legacy: Reagan's clear-eyed view of America being the indispensable nation in the battle against totalitarianism is history worth heeding.