It may well be indicative of real progress in America that we are now able to read the Presidential speeches of a man that leading commentators frequently declared unelectable a decade ago. But now that Ronald Reagan’s electability is established beyond doubt, the national media have been busy tagging him as the “most ideological” of Presidents. The ordinary citizen, vaguely uncomfortable in a world of instant analyses that he never made, might just welcome the opportunity to examine, without prejudice, the ideas and beliefs of Mr. Reagan. Fortunately, Emil Area and Gregory J. Pamel have compiled a cross section of the President’s addresses, one that covers most of the major issues and themes of Reagan’s Presidency.

The alleged ideological rigidity of Reagan turns out, upon examination, to consist of little but a realism concerning the failed ideologies of the 60’s and 70’s. The initial optimism of the Great Society—the belief that every wrinkle in the human condition could be ironed out through government programs—gave way by the late 70’s to “malaise,” the nagging suspicion that government could hardly function at all. During that period, new “rights” were constantly being discovered for the unproductive, the antisocial, and the bizarre; Federal programs and intrusions grew apace. In contrast, national defense was neglected, since detente committed the country to a quiet acceptance of aggressive Soviet behavior in exchange for pleasant Soviet rhetoric.

Ronald Reagan is consistent in excoriating the policies and mentality that turned the prosperous and strong America of 1960 into the severely weakened America of 1980. Reagan’s appeal is not so much to ideology as to common sense; his injunction is to “look at the record,” as Al Smith would have said. National security is the first priority of the Federal government; poverty was being successfully fought so long as a growing economy, low inflation, and consistent increases in productivity were the rule; violence and lack of parental involvement are antithetical to education; the Soviet Union is an evil empire.

Despite Reagan’s frequent attacks on big government, though, in practice he is the defender of a remarkable amount of governmental activity in the domestic arena. The “safety net” is a prime example. Even if domestic spending was reduced at once by some $200 billion annually—a politically “unthinkable” suggestion—it would still be triple 1960 domestic spending in real, after-inflation terms.

Rhetoric is important. If some people believe that Reagan wants to return the nation to the Coolidge era, the reason is partly that he sometimes sounds as if he would like to do so, even though he intends nothing of the sort. Sooner or later, one suspects, conservative Americans will have to deal with the incongruence of political rhetoric reminiscent of The Road to Serfdom and of persistent defense of a variety of liberal programs and initiatives.

To be sure, the Reagan Administration has effected a dramatic reduction in the inflation rate and a rejuvenation of the military. Still, there is room for doubt over whether America is standing as tall in the 80’s as some of the President’s speeches suggest. Federal outlays still consume a larger share of the Gross National Product than they did under Carter, and, even with the increase in defense spending (now sputtering to a halt), that spending is only 15 percent higher in real-dollar terms now than it was 30 years ago. Despite today’s reputedly conservative climate, many Americans seem incapable of grasping the nature of the Soviet threat, as evidenced by the “shock” at Reagan’s evil empire speech.

These Presidential addresses will certainly not settle the question of whether a realignment of the American political spectrum is taking place. They do, though, present us with something for which we can all be grateful: the return of some measure of reason, civility, and common sense to our politics after one of the more dismal periods in American history.



[The Triumph of the American Spirit: The Presidential Speeches of Ronald Reagan; Edited by Emil Area and Gregory J. Pamel; Detroit: National Reproductions]