Barone: Reagan was a strong activist

Chris Kaergard

The America that Ronald Reagan was born into 101 years ago was in many broad ways similar to the America of today, columnist and Fox News commentator Michael Barone said Monday night at Eureka College at an event marking the birthday of that school’s most famous alumnus.

Then — as now — the country was growing rapidly with high levels of immigration; had seen an economic downturn, in that case in 1907; was dealing with significant technological growth; and had many people nervous about the vast accumulation of wealth by a very few.

With that in mind, the legacy for the next century of a man who “embodied … many of the nation’s changing characteristics” carries plenty of interest, Barone told the audience of about 100 — and a group of students and faculty members earlier in the day — laying out elements he saw as important in “understanding his success as a transformative president.”

One of those key areas, said the author of “The Almanac of American Politics,” was foreign policy, where Reagan “remained true to beliefs he developed as a young man” — when, interestingly, he voted four times successively for Franklin Roosevelt as president during a time when Reagan self-identified as a “bleeding-heart liberal” Democrat.

But though Reagan later turned away from the social and economic policies espoused by Roosevelt’s New Deal, Barone told the crowd, the one thing that stuck with him was the strong, activist foreign policy that FDR pushed throughout World War II.

As Reagan became a political figure on the national stage himself, he hewed to a strong foreign policy that was at odds with those promoted by other political figures in the post-Vietnam War era, Barone said.

“Ronald Reagan as president managed to restore what had been the mainline foreign policy for many years,” he said. That meant it was the goal of America’s leaders, “not to manage the decline of America, but to manage the decline of the Soviet Union.”

And even after the decline and later fall of the USSR, that activist foreign policy promoting freedom across the globe was a lasting legacy, he said.

“The foreign policies of Reagan’s successors have resembled his much more than those of Reagan’s dovish critics,” Barone said. “That’s evidence that variations on (that) is what’s needed for the next hundred years.”