Reagan's legacy: relaxation of global tensions

RONALD REAGAN has taught me a little humility. Once back in the mid-'60s, after riding around the state with him a bit when he and Nancy were exploring the possibility of a Reagan bid for the California governorship, I concluded he would never make it. He seemed to have no concept of what he would do as governor - or what a governor should do. He was an actor whose outreach extended beyond his capacities. The voters would never elevate this man to leadership of this great state - I thought at the time. How wrong I was!

Not once, but twice, Californians made Mr. Reagan their chief state executive. Furthermore, he turned out to be a better than average governor in the eyes of many of those who opposed him, and a superb governor in the eyes of his supporters. From the beginning Reagan's aspirations went beyond Sacramento - to the White House. I joined in the overwhelming judgment of Washington observers in calling this a Reagan fantasy.

Reagan's detractors still call his success ``Reagan luck,'' and his ability to brush off criticism a ``Teflon'' quality. They contend that his affable personality brings about his winning ways. His severest critics concede he may have been the best ``ceremonial president'' in history.

I was among those who thought Mr. Reagan's presidency would reflect superficiality. But shortly after Reagan became president, I began to see that he wasn't just all smiles. He possessed a lot of determination: His critics called it ``stubbornness.'' Reagan knew what he wanted to do and would make an unstinting, single-minded effort to bring it about.

For years he had talked about the need to cut domestic spending - except for defense. He made only limited progress in slowing such spending in the face of much opposition from the Democrats in Congress. Yet Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, the House Ways and Means chairman, called such Reagan-led cutbacks ``severe.'' ``Under Reagan,'' he told reporters over breakfast a few days ago, ``social programs were cut to the bone.''

But most of all, Reagan's election victories caught the eye of his opponents in Congress. They saw that the voters liked what he was saying about slowing spending and reducing the size of government. No longer did Congress ask, ``Where can we find the money?'' Instead, even liberals were putting the question a little differently: ``How can we solve the problem without spending more money?'' The word around Washington was: If you look like a ``spender,'' the voters will punish you.

True, Reagan did little to reduce the massive budget deficit. And his lowering of taxes did not bring about the increased revenue he promised would cut deeply into that deficit. But Reagan really wasn't that concerned about the budget deficit. He felt that as long as it existed, the ``spenders'' in Congress simply wouldn't have money to lay their hands on. He was using the budget deficit as a tool to keep down spending for social programs. That's what the Democrats were really screaming about when they complained about Reagan's unwillingness to raise taxes or cut the deficit. They wanted some of that additional revenue for domestic programs.

Even back when he ran for governor, Reagan talked about the importance of America's playing a leading role in the world. By the time he ran against President Carter, Reagan was calling for a return of the US to that leadership.

No doubt about it, Reagan is leaving behind a nation that once again holds global respect. His military buildup was the key element in this resurgence. It is arguable that Reagan's arms buildup, even more than Soviet economic problems, caused Mikhail Gorbachev to blink. Gorbachev is now willing to go along with Reagan's proposal for cutting nuclear armaments. (It was Reagan, not Gorbachev, who first proposed reductions in, not a cap on, nuclear armaments.)

Reagan's critics reluctantly applaud his success in easing East-West relations. But many call it another example of Reagan's luck. And some say the progress on armament reduction should be attributed solely to Gorbachev and his initiatives.

Nonsense. In his uncomplicated way of viewing things, President Reagan realized that by building up defense he could get the Soviets to see that it was too expensive to proceed any further in what was a senseless arms race. And he was right.

Reagan's biggest legacy is that he may well be remembered as the president who turned this arms race around. He might even be remembered as the one who brought us back from the brink of a nuclear disaster. This assessment must, of course, wait on events: Most pertinent now is how President-elect George Bush performs in dealing with the Soviets, and whether he can keep arms reductions on a downhill track.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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