Reaganites fondly recall Gipper's good old days ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

April 27, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- For three days last weekend at Hofstra University here, a kind of nostalgic love-in about Ronald Reagan went on in a retrospective conference on his presidency.

Many of the most loyal Reaganites, from former Attorney General Edwin Meese to former Secretary of Interior James Watt and other Cabinet and sub-Cabinet members, recalled the good old days with a mixture of pride and regret.

Between boastings about "the longest period of peacetime economic growth in American history" and recollections of TC favorite Reagan jokes, there were private grumblings about how it all came to a premature end through the missteps of the wrong heir to the Reagan Revolution -- George Bush -- and his hapless 1992 campaign for re-election.

While others around the country were proclaiming the death of that revolution with the election of Democrat Bill Clinton, these loyalists basked in its dimmed afterglow, arguing that it was under-appreciated and only awaits another Reagan to resurrect the true conservative movement.

Ralph Bledsoe, a Reagan White House official who is now director of the Reagan presidential library, complained about talk of the "Reagan-Bush" era, saying the pairing was unjust. Former Reagan national party chairman Frank Fahrenkopf even argued that "Ronald Reagan actually won three presidential elections in the 1980s" -- also winning for Bush in 1988.

Watt, without mentioning Bush, said of Reagan: "We had a man who knew what he wanted to do." The Bush administration, he said later, put the conservative movement "on hold" because "we could not speak out during those four years. George Bush had been loyal to Ronald Reagan and we had to be loyal to him." So, he said, "we took a sabbatical," but promised that "the fire that is going to ignite the conservative agenda [again] is Bill Clinton."

And Reagan White House political director Lyn Nofziger, disputing one panelist's contention that conservatives were an unhappy lot now, protested: "I'm happy. It's a heck of a lot more fun going out attacking Bill Clinton than defending George Bush."

The Reaganites, bypassing the Bush 1992 campaign rhetoric, insisted that it was Reagan's massive military spending and the threat of his "Star Wars" space defense scheme that really did in the Soviet Union.

Edmund Morris, Reagan's authorized White House biographer, suggested that "Star Wars" didn't have to be deployed to be successful in bankrupting the troubled Soviet economy if the Kremlin was induced to try to match it. As to whether Reagan understood that, Morris said, "the answer is locked up in that great underground silo which is Ronald Reagan's heart."

Meese went so far as to claim that Reagan's breaking of the air traffic controllers' strike, and of the union itself, helped persuade the Soviets that he was a tough customer who couldn't be rolled.

But more than Reagan's toughness, his sunny optimism was credited here by scholars as well as loyalists with his ability to hold the American people spellbound for eight years. Morris called him "a metaphor for the American people" in this optimism. And eminent Columbia historian Henry Graff suggested that Reagan, after the hard times of the Carter years, offered the people "an Indian summer" in which problems could be postponed.

Another chronicler of the Reagan administration, author-journalist Haynes Johnson, called Reagan "a consequential president," but added that the country will be "living with the consequences for years to come" -- the debt accumulated and the domestic social neglect of his eight years in office.

That view, however, was distinctly a minority one as a college reunion atmosphere dominated on the Hofstra campus among the old grads of Gipper U. At one dinner, the featured speaker's subject was the humor of Ronald Reagan, complete with recollections of his own self-deprecating one-liners about his age.

Another speaker recalled that when Soviet leaders began dropping off during the Reagan tenure, the president inquired about buying his vice president "a season ticket to Russian funerals."

And so it went all weekend.

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