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Tipsheet: Reflections on Ronald Reagan

EDITORS: The following Indiana University Bloomington faculty members can provide insights into the legacy of former President Ronald Reagan, who died Saturday (June 5) at age 93.

Ronald Reagan will be remembered as a leader whose militaristic policies led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that is only half the story, according to Dina Spechler, associate professor of political science at IUB. Spechler said that Reagan's willingness to engage and negotiate with the Soviet Union during his second administration might have done more to bring about the demise of communism than the intimidation tactics he employed during his first term in office. "During his first administration, Reagan was bitterly opposed to arms control," she said. "In his second administration, he was more forthcoming and his interest in arms control was extensive. This was encouraging to the Soviet leadership." Reagan's willingness to cooperate with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev led to a historic 1987 arms control treaty, the most far-reaching disarmament accord since 1945. Spechler said she can only hypothesize as to why Reagan chose to shift his policy toward the Soviet Union. "Being that it was his last four years, he might have been thinking about his legacy," she said. "Would you want to be remembered as a belligerent, militaristic president or as a great president who achieved world peace?" Spechler, whose research interests cover Russian, Soviet and American foreign policy, can be reached at 812-855-5267 (office), 812-339-3777 (home) or 812-336-3656 (home).

Conservatives have good reason to celebrate Ronald Reagan's policies, but most Americans are not conservatives. The media ought to present a more balanced picture of the content of the "Reagan Revolution," according to Jeffrey Isaac, chair of the Department of Political Science and Rudy Professor of Political Science at IUB. Isaac believes that Americans' tendency to be nostalgic and Reagan's "feel-good" approach to American society have, in part, caused the media to respond to Reagan's death with such "laudatory accounts." A more balanced picture would highlight some troubling things, Isaac said, including the profound hostility of the Reagan administration toward labor unions and regulatory institutions such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency; an opposition to most social programs, especially those targeted at the poor; an approach to fiscal policy that many regard as irresponsible and as contributing to large federal budget deficits; a dangerous "nuclear chicken" policy with the USSR; a policy of support for brutal regimes and movements distinguished only by their anti-communism; and the Iran-Contra scandal. "It is doubtful that these features will get the attention that they deserve," Isaac said. "It is more likely that the media will focus on Reagan's personality and his optimism. This is a shame." Isaac can be reached at 812-855-1209 or

An IU professor who has worked with two presidential administrations saw clear differences in style between Ronald Reagan and his predecessor. Charles F. Bonser was the first dean of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where he remains as Ameritech Professor emeritus. In 1986, Bonser took a six-month leave from IU to join the staff of Otis "Doc" Bowen, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bowen and Bonser worked together on the reorganization of what formerly was known as the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. "Ronald Reagan was a big-picture person. I don't think he was a detail person," said Bonser, also director of IU's Arts Administration Program. "He was criticized sometimes for maybe not being as up on the details as he might be. Jimmy Carter was a great detail person, but I don't think he was as good with the big picture." Bonser worked on the Carter administration's overhaul of the Civil Service Commission, later known as the Office of Civil Management. He said it is correct that Reagan had a handful of major principles to which he stuck, which, as a result, determined his legacy. Looking back on his experience with HHS, Bonser said Reagan's decision to retool the federal agency continues to bear fruit today. "His administration, with 'Doc' leading the way for him, was very much a positive factor in where the organization is now and how they're operating and the services they're providing for the American people," he said. "Without the contributions made at that time, I don't they'd be where they are right now. It was a very positive contribution from the Reagan administration on issues with which I was fortunate to be involved. It was a great experience and I had a great time." Bonser can be reached at 812-855-6766 or at

While environmental accomplishments are not always included in discussions of Ronald Reagan's legacy, the Montreal Protocol, a landmark international agreement designed to protect the ozone layer, was a result of his presidency, recalled A. James Barnes, professor and former dean of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "That was an excellent example of United States leadership on an issue, bringing the rest of the world, including developing countries, along and something that is now really a model of what an international environmental effort can achieve," said Barnes, who served as the deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Prior to serving in the agency's number two position, Barnes, also an IU law professor, was the EPA general counsel and participated in the formation of EPA during the 1970s. He also served as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981 to 1983. "I think that Reagan -- despite being at an age when it is commonly thought that people get set in their ways and can't change -- could take in new information and change where that was appropriate. At the same time, he had a good overall framework of where he wanted to go and was very pragmatic at trying to do things along the way that ultimately were going to get him where he wanted to go. Both of those are important dimensions for a leader," he said. Two meetings Barnes had with Reagan stand out in his memory from his days in the administration -- when they first met at a White House event on March 30, 1981, and Barnes had his picture taken with the president, hours before John Hinkley's assassination attempt; and several months later at a photo session at the Secretary of Agriculture's office. "The photographer had set up some lights and was taking pictures and, at one point, one of the bulbs blew with a very loud 'pop' and everybody in the room just froze and shuddered, because all you could think of was whether something was happening now," Barnes recalled about the latter meeting. "Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing serious, but it was just a reminder of the sensitivity from the John Hinkley attack." Barnes can be reached at 812-855-4079, 812-856-2188 or

Much of the Republican Party's current political might stems from Ronald Reagan's efforts in the early 1980s to redirect his party toward a more socially conservative, Christian right platform, according to Marjorie Hershey, professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington. Hershey said that Reagan was able to tap into a bloc of mainstream voters who were more likely to get excited by issues such as abortion, homosexuality and school prayer than the economic issues of the day. This group of voters, which included a large number of fundamentalist Christians and Southerners, "generated a tremendously strong party," she said. "We saw a real increase in Republican strength in the late 1960s. That started to flag in the mid-70s and then restarted in the early 1980s. When we look at changes in political parties over time, there are times when a new group of people comes in and strengthens a party. With the Republican Party, it was the Christian right." Hershey added that Reagan's positive personality and ability to effectively communicate his messages helped him move the party in a new direction. "Part of it was the way Reagan said things, and part of it was the kind of person he was," she said. "He had a sunny personality, but he also showed considerable strength given the context of the times, with Vietnam, Watergate and the problems that occurred during the Carter administration." Even when people didn't agree with Reagan on the issues, they found his personal messages "extremely appealing," she said. Hershey prefers to be contacted by e-mail at, but she is willing to take phone calls at 812-855-5094 (office) or 812-332-6473 (home).

Reagan leaves a complex legacy in the extent to which his policies contributed to the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and changes in the intelligence community, according to Michael McGinnis, professor of political science and co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at IUB. McGinnis can discuss aspects of Reagan's foreign and intelligence policies. He prefers to be contacted by e-mail at Reporters can also leave him a message at 812-855-0441.