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One lucky -- or very smart -- guy

How good was he?

Much better than I thought he'd be. I never voted for him. But as a president, he was bigger, stronger, better than I expected. Lots of what he tried worked.

Who is better off after Reagan? The rich. The upper half of the middle class. The corporate class. The Republican Party overall. Entrepreneurs. Wall Street raiders. White-collar criminals. Drug dealers at the larger end of the scale. Munitions makers. All have flourished in the Reagan era.

Who's worse off? The poor. The homeless. Americans of minority descent. American children overall, given that so many of them live in poverty. The Third World. Liberals. The Democratic Party's chances of regaining the White House.

Not since Dwight Eisenhower 30 years ago have we had a two-term president, or one whose popularity was so enduring. How does Reagan's presidency measure up on five scales: 1. security; 2. economy; 3. adherence to law; 4. environment; and 5. atmospherics?

1. On the first count, Reagan is triumphant. His arms-control treaty with the Soviets is a stunning achievement. His "Peace through strength" approach, featuring a massive military spending campaign, bore fruit. The world situation is more benign at the end of 1988 than anyone would have believed possible. Some of what Reagan tried worked, in the end. He rammed cruise and Pershing missiles into Europe, and the Soviets eventually cried "Uncle." He began by denouncing the "Evil Empire" and wound up, four Soviet leaders later, strolling Red Square with Mikhail Gorbachev on his arm. He bombed Libya, and Libya cooled its terror tactics.

Regional conflicts around the world -- Angola, Central America, Afghanistan -- are all cooling because of the Reagan-Gorbachev accommodation. You can argue that the Soviet Union was brought to heel by the crumbling of its domestic economy. But the bottom line is that Reagan's hairy-chested military buildup had the desired result, by and large.

The record is flawed. I still think he invaded Grenada to take the nation's attention away from the terrible policy that left 246 Marines slaughtered in Beirut four days earlier. His undeclared war against Nicaragua was stupid and illegal; the arms-for-hostages scam was potentially impeachable. His toleration of South African apartheid is a stain on our national honor. But is the world a safer place today, for the majority of its 5 billion population, than it was eight years ago? Yes. He deserves much credit for that.

2. The credit most Americans give Reagan for economic gains may not last much longer than his presidency. He's tripled the federal deficit. He sold out to "unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex" Eisenhower warned about, and its "potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power."

Under Reagan, America became a debtor nation and ceded its economic dominance to Japan. Foreigners are buying up American bonds, real estate and corporate stock. Future generations will have to pay off Reagan's interest charges. We are weaker, against the world economy, than when he took over. But the majority of Americans liked Reaganomics, because it was feel-good economics; play now, pay later. Unemployment is lower than in 13 years, and he kept inflation at bay. But he sold off our future to do it; that will haunt us.

3. He was not the law-and-order president he pretended to be. Sleaze permeated his official household. He brought criminals to high office; or, at least, people who became criminals. His top military aides lied to Congress, the press, the people, to some of his own Cabinet officers. Reagan avoided the blame for what his own men did. He tolerated Pentagon corruption, lying and deception and worse in the National Security operation, and deceit and drug-dealing in the intelligence community.

4. The earth is a sadder, dirtier, more radioactive planet after Reagan. He protected polluters, plundered public lands, sold off oil-drilling rights and weakened environmental practices. He did it all in the name of economic development. And the air, the water, the ozone laywer and the land are all worse off at the end of his watch. He never understood, never got beyond killer trees.

5. Atmospherics, if not protecting the atmosphere, was his strong suit. He was an image president. He looked great. Tall, handsome, jaunty, brave. He played the part we wanted played. Don't tell us America's day is done, don't tell us our sun is setting, tell us how great we are, we're No. 1, please, keep telling us. And he did. A big part of a president's job, a bigger part than Carter or Mondale or Dukakis ever figured, is a would-be president's bedside manner: holding the hand of the nation's fragile psyche.

And Reagan did it better than anybody since FDR. Great public performing, wonderful stage presence, good lighting and amplification and attention to the detail of stagecraft. Put all the Hollywood tools together with the marvelous ebullient public personality (his own daughter Patty's novelistic portrait of a fictional father as remote and vapid was largely disbelieved) and Reagan was a powerful propaganda force.

People felt they knew him, and trusted him, and bought his act. His secret wasn't Teflon, it was likability. He became a mythic figure after he was shot and survived. The same luck that enabled him to survive an assassain's bullet, and two cancer scares, and the ailments and depressions that waylay most others fortunate to survive till the end of their 77th year, stuck with him. He is one lucky fellow.

Gasoline never went to $2 a gallon; oil prices fell by two-thirds, and that did more for his economic program than anything else. The economy soared, the Soviets said "Nyet" to his renewal of the arms race, and the stock market collapse turned out to be a one-day scare. In the end, he got away with lots of things that would have done in a less fortunate, less friendly, less likable politician. He was lucky, alright. But he was lucky so many times, you have to ask, as he heads out the door, why was he lucky so often? Can it be that he's really so much smarter than some of us thought?

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