Even to critics, Reagan was larger than life

By Thomas M. DeFrank: New York Daily News

WASHINGTON — Camp Liberty Bell, South Korea, 1983. Ronald Reagan is saddling up after a quick visit to the demilitarized zone, where he has just stared through goggles across the barren border between the two Koreas at a Potemkin village to the north and dismissed it as just another phony Hollywood set.

Reagan expects to board his helicopter for the short return hop to Seoul. But his advance men have prepared a surprise. It turns out that the U.S. Army unit serving as his host is descended from the fabled 7th Cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, whom Reagan portrayed in “Santa Fe Trail.” Instead of motorcading to his chopper, aides suggest that the president walk instead.
Ever the showman, Reagan eagerly agrees. Wearing his 2nd Infantry Division baseball jacket, the commander-in-chief sets off down the camp’s dusty main drag. An Army band quickly falls in behind, striking up Custer’s favorite march, “Garryowen.”

It’s a moment of sublime theatrical magic, and by the time Reagan strolls up to Marine One, his chest is so puffed up, he could pass for one of the floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“Just like in the movies,” he tells an aide later, still savoring the memory.

Even to many of his critics, Ronald Wilson Reagan seemed larger than life. He was Franklin D. Roosevelt played by John Wayne — the custodian of old-fashioned virtues and values that had made his America great; and, he was convinced, with a bit more nurturing, he could restore it to what he loved to call “that shining city on a hill.”

Reagan had an old-fashioned view of life — even on weekends, he wore a jacket to work, lest he give offense to the dignity of the Oval Office — and a conservative’s abiding disdain for Washington. “Government is not the solution to our problem,” he said in his first inaugural address. “Government is the problem.”

His goal, he often said, was to “drain the swamp” on the Potomac, and his first official act was an executive order imposing a hiring freeze on the federal government. He followed up with historic budget and tax cuts that infuriated Democrats.

Without waiting for history’s longer view, the outlines of Reagan’s legacy have begun to jell: lower taxes, smaller government and a more muscular defense.

Historians and economists are sure to debate endlessly whether the trillion-dollar debt created by his stubborn devotion to supply-side theology mortgaged America’s future or revolutionized modern economic theory.

Reagan also likely will be credited for abandoning, in his waning years in office — in part through the prodding of his wife, Nancy — his Cold Warrior dogma in favor of better relations with a Soviet Union that he once denounced as an Evil Empire that someday would end up in history’s dustbin.

On that score, he was a prophet. The disintegration Reagan so confidently predicted happened months after he left office in 1989.

But Reagan’s enduring achievement almost certainly will turn out to be the revival of America’s spirit.