GOP needs Reagan’s intellect

by Jim Longworth

In criticizing how radical and mean spirited the tea party Republicans have become, President Barack Obama likes to say that if Ronald Reagan were running for president today, he would never make it through a GOP primary. Unfortunately, he’s probably right.

In 1980, I was a freelance reporter for the upstart CNN, and one day while candidate Reagan was walking around his temporary digs in Middleburg, Va., ABC’s Sam Donaldson, a few other reporters and I tossed out questions to the man who would be president. Reagan was an affable, gentle man who handled all of our questions with great aplomb.

And that brings me to the widespread myth that Reagan was lacking in the brains department. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Actually an old “Saturday Nght Live” skit came closest to accurately portraying Reagan’s intelligence and leadership. In that sketch, the late great Phil Hartman played Reagan as he was greeting a group of Girl Scouts in the Oval Office. So long as the children were present, Reagan was a lumbering, aw-shucks guy. But the moment the kids left, he cracked the whip and proceeded to fire off a string of complex facts and commands to his staff. In truth, Reagan WAS that decisive and intelligent. But don’t take my word for it. Just go purchase a DVD of “Firing Line” from Jan. 14, 1980.

“Firing Line” was a highbrow PBS interview show that ran from 1966 to 1999. It was produced and moderated by the late William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review. On this particular episode, Reagan was the only guest, and for 60 minutes he was grilled by Buckley, but in a rather unique way. Instead of asking Reagan what he would do if elected, Buckley posed all of the questions as if Reagan was already occupying the White House. Reagan had no handlers and no notes. He spoke off the cuff and with authority about scores of serious issues. Here are some excerpts of the exchanges between the two men.

Buckley: Tito is dead and the pro-Soviet faction in Yugoslavia has urged the Soviet Union, citing the Brezhnev Doctrine, to send its armies to restore order. As president, you have just been advised that Soviet columns are on their way south.

Reagan: Always before it’s been the Soviets stirring up a revolution, but using proxy troops. This time it’s Soviet troops riding in motorized equipment which was built with American know-how, and run by American computers. We provided that on the pledge that the Soviet Union would never make a product available for military purposes, and they have violated that…. The goal is world peace and, therefore, the United States cannot recklessly put itself into a position where a confrontation does take place, but I think we must make it plain to the Soviet Union that they run the risk of such a confrontation if they continue with their imperialism, and with this kind of expansion…. I don’t think the Soviet Union wants a confrontation with the United States”.

As we later discovered, when Reagan became president, he got tough with the Russians, and his Star Wars bluff led to the end of the Cold War, and to the constant threat of Soviet missiles landing in America.

Another scenario posed by Buckley had to do with the economy.

Buckley: Rep. Jack Kemp suggests that all future bonds be issued on guaranteed purchasing power basis.

Reagan: That sure would make the government honest for a change. We use patriotism to get people to buy bonds, and yet the federal government knows that as long as we maintain this inflation rate, they are going to pay the people back with dollars that, even with interest, will not buy as much as the dollars that people are investing in those bonds, and then tax them on the interest. Since government causes inflation, government is the only one that can stop inflation.

The tea party and the far-right wing of the modern-day Republican party love to extol the virtues of Ronald Reagan, and honor him as a godlike figure. But in truth, those same uninformed, intolerant people would never give Reagan a second look if he was running today. Reagan was kind to his political adversaries. He knew how to compromise to get things done. He was well read and well spoken. And he had a command of facts and figures as they related to public policy. In other words, he was everything that today’s Republicans aren’t.

So was “Firing Line.” It was our nation’s last bastion of intelligent discourse, providing a forum for people of all political persuasions to share ideas. Sadly, it left the airwaves in 1999 just as George W. Bush and Karl Rove were making their move to kidnap the Republican Party. The irony of that juxtaposition should not be lost on us.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).