The Sincere Sincerity of Ronald Reagan, the Best President of the Last 100 Years

–Richard E. Vatz, Ph.D.

There is little a professor of political rhetoric can say that is new regarding the finest conservative president of our time, and, in this professor’s opinion, the finest president of the last 100 years, Ronald Reagan.

I want to commemorate the 100th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s birth by referencing an observation I made with my co-author Lee S. Weinberg in a Baltimore Sun op-ed piece on August 20, 1981 titled “Reaganspeak and the New Imperial Presidency;” namely, that Ronald Reagan was a unique presidential character respecting his rhetorical sincerity.

Sincerity has always been a fascinating character dimension to me — oversimplified, it means the lack of deception.

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The great majority of people we meet in a lifetime seem to us as acting out of utilitarian goals — what advantages them or what advantages their policies.

Fewer people act on behalf of principles — mostly conservatives, but not only conservatives (see the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone). Paradoxically, one of the least sincere presidents — and that is a pretty high standard — was Richard Nixon, famous for his locution, “It would have been politically easy to do “X,” but we did “Y” because it was the “right thing to do.”

But, again, few presidents are ingenuous sorts: when Barack Obama gets angry in a speech, it sounds as if he has made a strategic decision to get angry to energize his support.

On the rare occasion when Ronald Reagan sounded hot under the collar, no one suspected he was acting: in the 1980 presidential debate when he was threatened with the turning off of his sound, then-Governor Reagan furiously asserted, “I paid for this microphone!” Similarly, when he famously said, countermanding some of the advice from his aides, to Mikhail Gorbachev at Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” no one entertained even the thought that President Reagan didn’t have the courage of his convictions.

Finally, let me reference the slander made famous by perennial Democratic aide and consultant Clark Clifford that Ronald Reagan was an “amiable dunce.” Resisting the urge to look at irresponsible policies Mr. Clifford supported, it is interesting to examine the intelligence-judgment dichotomy that I discuss with my classes each term.

I once asked William F. Buckley (sorry for the name-dropping, but I was on his Firing Line show in 1985) what he thought of the criticism that President Reagan was “unintelligent.”

He replied that if you had given President Reagan a standard I.Q. test that he would do about “average,” but that his judgment was his real stock-in-trade. I was not surprised at his answer; Mr. Buckley often talked about the misperception of perspicacity inferred from “intelligent” but misguided intellectuals — see his God and Man at Yale among many other writings which made this point.

Again, specific successes are widely known and acknowledged: President Reagan’s victorious consistency in foreign policy; his laying the groundwork for the fall of the Soviet Union; his conservative fiscal policies; and his pragmatic conservatism without ugliness. And, yes, there are no two-term presidents without failures, such as the bombing and killing of 241 Marines in Lebanon, followed by a precipitous withdrawal.

But, most of all I shall remember his personal countenance: the sincere sincerity of a political man who knew what he believed and didn’t need to consult opinion polls to discover what was prudent public policy.

His was in toto a conservative’s conservative: he believed in hard work and reward; individual responsibility; the moral and political responsibility of the world’s greatest superpower, and the power of principle.

We shall not likely see his like again in the presidency.

Professor Vatz is professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University

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