Reagan's Legacy for America

POLITICAL success has always been built on about equal parts leadership and followership. In this regard, Ronald Reagan's spectacular career in public office - since he left Hollywood for Sacramento 22 years ago - is no exception. The main difference with Mr. Reagan, of course, is that he was consistently underestimated by the ``experts,'' that is, just about everybody who had anything to do with politics - except the folks who actually did the voting.

Some called it luck, but Reagan's timing - as it must have been when he was a full-time actor - was also on the mark. What the country wanted and what he offered coincided in remarkable fashion, at least for the first few years of his presidency.

So what is Reagan's legacy?

More people are working, and the ``misery index'' (inflation plus unemployment) is down. But national debt has tripled and the twin deficits - budget and trade - hang over the country like a pair of black balloons. And even the economic good news does not apply universally.

The rate of poverty is down a bit from its 1983 peak. But it remains higher than it was 20 years ago - especially for blacks, many of whom find the ``city on a hill'' decidedly cold and shabby. The ``safety net'' still needs repair, especially for the growing number of women and children among the thousands of homeless.

As for America's place in the world, the President - and the rest of us - can certainly feel more secure. Yes, there were blunders and things left undone. Central America and the Middle East come quickly to mind.

But Reagan handled superpower relations (to the extent that the Soviet Union can be ``handled'') just about right. ``Peace through strength'' became more than a slogan, and it worked for the most part.

``For the first time in memory a decade is coming to a close offering plausible hope that the 10 years ahead will be safer and more stable than the 10 before,'' observes Simon Serfaty, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute.

Even Michael Dukakis (before he was trounced by George Bush) gave credit where it was due. ``Thanks to President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev,'' he said, ``we may have the best opportunity in our lifetime to build a safer world.''

On major ``hot button'' social issues, most of Reagan's conservative goals went unmet. Formal prayer in school is still outlawed and abortion was not reined in.

Pressing needs were unfilled as well. ``Just Say No'' is an excellent starting point on drugs. But abuse of illegal drugs (and alcohol) increasingly is tearing individuals, families, and communities apart, not least of all in the President's own neighborhood, Washington, D.C. Even Mr. Bush's ``drug czar'' - William Bennett - says the Reagan administration's policies on drugs ``could have been more coherent, more direct.''

The President's greatest impact on the American polity probably won't be known for some time. That's the work still to be done by the 379 federal judges - 50 percent of the total - appointed for life by Reagan.

But presidential leadership involves more than getting things done - with the Congress or in spite of it. It means setting a tone, a standard for public service and private activity. And here, the record is decidedly mixed.

There were outstanding members of the Reagan team, George Shultz and James Baker among them, who served the country with distinction. There were heroes as well: press secretary James Brady and especially his wife Sarah.

But the list of those who were prosecuted for wrongdoing or otherwise left under less-than-honorable circumstances is far too long. Was it Mr. Reagan's inattentiveness, as the Iran-contra commission headed by John Tower so painfully described? Or his belief that ethics should not be legislated? He recently killed a bill that would have restricted lobbying by former officials. Fortunately, George Bush says government ethics will be a top priority.

Still, the country is feeling much better about itself than it was in 1980. And its position has improved in ways that will be felt for years to come. For this we owe Ronald Reagan much thanks, as well as Godspeed.

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