That Donald Trump is unlike Ronald Reagan has been detailed as space allows — much more could have been written — most thoroughly by Reagan biographer, Dr. Paul G. Kengor; however, the current kerfuffle over Trump’s tantrum about a federal judge evokes Reagan’s response to those, like Trump, who paint with such a broad brush, whether racial or religious. Moreover, Trump’s low-information campaign and his assertion that he would make deals as did President Reagan with Speaker Tip O’Neill show he is no Reagan and does not know what made Reagan’s presidency a success.
In his last radio address as a private citizen, Governor Reagan discussed something “very serious for all of us and another indication of how far we are straying from the very basics of our system.” Said Reagan, “When Congress voted to extend the time for states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment , it refused to allow several states to change their position and rescind the approval they had given earlier.”
Therefore, Idaho sued. “A few weeks ago,” Reagan declared, “the U.S. Department of Justice, which should be the defender above all of constitutional rights, filed a motion with the Idaho court … to disqualify the judge appointed to hear the case. Now hear this! The Justice Department wants him disqualified because of his religion. He is a member of the Mormon church. I leave it to you to imagine what such a precedent could do to our entire system of justice if judges can be either assigned or disqualified on the basis of religion.”
Or, as Trump rants, race.
Those radio addresses reveal yet another way in which Trump is not fit to pull off Reagan’s boots. Reagan read widely and deeply and wrote informatively about the issues of his day. Beginning in January of 1975 and for almost five years, Reagan researched, wrote, and recorded radio addresses and prepared newspaper columns — he took a short break when he ran for the 1976 Republican nomination for president. When he stopped for good in 1979, he had drafted and delivered 1,027 radio commentaries; 673 were written in his own hand. Over two-thirds of them concerned domestic issues, such as energy and the environment, which Reagan covered frequently.
Not only was the range of Reagan’s subjects impressive; the depth of his analysis and his understanding of them was astonishing. The ease with which he moved from federal department to department and bureau to bureau suggested an erudite scholar, a keen observer, and a thoughtful analyst familiar with the way from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. Reagan continued his radio addresses as president; in fact, on two occasions he personally researched and wrote out longhand radio addresses on obscure but controversial Department of the Interior policies.
When Reagan got to Washington, Republicans controlled the Senate, but the House remained firmly in the grip of Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat from Massachusetts, whose disdain for his fellow Irishman in the White House was clear. “You’re in the big leagues now,” he told Reagan in their first meeting in the Oval Office, “to set [him] straight on how things operated in Washington.”
Reagan understood. “Tip didn’t try to hide the fact that he thought I had come to Washington to dismantle everything he believed in — things he and other liberals had spent decades fighting for, starting with the New Deal. As far as he was concerned, I was the enemy.”
Even a pleasant evening in the White House with their wives — Reagan thought he “made a friend” — did not soften O’Neill’s heart. Days later in a newspaper story, “Tip really lit into me personally,” Reagan wrote. “Some of his remarks were pretty nasty. I was not only surprised but disappointed and also a little hurt.”
Said O’Neill when Reagan called to complain, “Ol’ buddy, that’s politics.”
O’Neill continued to disparage and denounce Reagan, but Reagan made no deals, attracted Blue Dog Democrats like Jim Santini of Nevada, and scored legislative victory after legislative victory over O’Neill.
For those awaiting “another Reagan,” the vigil continues.
William Perry Pendley, an attorney, is author of Sagebrush Rebel, Reagan’s Battle with Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today (Regnery, 2013).