This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan. While Ronaldus Magnus (as he is known among some admirers) was not made president for life and beyond like North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, 23 years after his term in office ended he remains the lodestar for U.S. conservatives and the Republican Party. That is darkly ironic since honest conservatives concede that Reagan would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today. Still, understanding Ronald Reagan, the man and the myth, is essential to understanding the United States.

Ronald Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, and grew up in Illinois. He struggled as an actor, discovering eventually that his political instincts were better than his skills as a thespian. A self-professed Democrat in his early years, his tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild and role as pitchman for General Electric pushed him to the right in his politics. He debuted on the national political stage in 1964, backing GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention. He was elected governor of California in 1966 and won a second term four years later.

In 1976, he made his first bid for the presidency, losing out to Gerald Ford, who was then defeated by Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter on a tide of anti-Watergate sentiment. He spent the next four years consolidating his position as leader of the conservative movement and won the GOP nomination and the presidency in 1980. He occupied the White House for two terms, in many ways redefining the terms of U.S. politics. Here the legacy gets tricky.

For his disciples, Reagan the president governed according to simple and consistent rules. As he explained in his 1980 inaugural address, for him government was the problem, never the solution. Small government solutions were always preferred. That view led him to oppose taxes — to unleash the power of the American capitalist and “to starve the beast” — as well as to shrink Washington’s authority via deregulation and the devolution of power to state and local governments. At the same time, he was a cultural conservative who brought religious groups into the GOP and shifted the party away from its traditional promotion of individual liberties to taking a side in the culture wars.

In foreign policy, Reagan was a fierce nationalist who dismissed detente as acquiescing to evil; he was the man who called the Soviet Union “the empire of evil.” A resolute, hardnosed and principled strategist, Reagan demanded that Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down” the Berlin Wall, opposed the return of the Panama Canal and promised to fight communism wherever it appeared. For Reagan, freedom was an absolute value to be defended and extended at all costs.

That is the Ronald Reagan that Republicans remember and venerate. Every GOP candidate invokes his name. At a presidential debate among Republican candidates in January 2008, he was referred to at least 53 times. Everyone with an eye on the 2012 nomination, from former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, pledges to govern in his spirit.

The problem is that Reagan the president governed by a much more complex formula and those principles were quickly jettisoned when they proved inconvenient. Democrats, for example, are quick to point out that Reagan actually increased taxes in 1982 and even raised capital gains taxes and closed tax loopholes in 1986. In fact, he raised taxes seven out of the eight years he was in office.

The opponent of small government increased the size of the federal government — adding a new Cabinet-level agency — and the budget. The avowed enemy of big government tripled the size of the federal deficit while he was in the White House. He even signed a bill offering amnesty to illegal aliens, a move that would be apostasy among conservatives today.

On foreign policy, he met with the enemy — remember Iran-Contra and the birthday cake in the shape of a key? — and even broached the prospect of a world without nuclear weapons during one of his meetings with Mr. Gorbachev, leader of “the evil empire.” He agreed to negotiations with terrorists to secure the release of U.S. hostages, a gambit that ultimately failed.

In short, the real Reagan legacy, say real students of his life, is pragmatism. As president, Ronald Reagan was prepared to solve problems, even if that meant reaching across the aisle to work with his adversaries and abandoning the bumper-sticker rhetoric. He was tough, but he was also flexible. He had convictions, but they guided him, rather than constrained him. Even Democrats embrace this Reagan. In his last State of the Union address, observers highlighted President Barack Obama’s “Reagan-like optimism.”

Here perhaps is the most important element of the Reagan legacy. In office, Reagan liked to refer to Thomas Jefferson’s notion that the U.S. was “a shining city on the hill.” That spirit was captured in the 1984 re-election campaign ad that proclaimed it was “morning in America.” Ronald Reagan was an optimist who refused to believe that his country could not and would not be better. That belief sustained him and his country. His willingness to make that potential real — even if it meant shaving his principles — made Ronald Reagan a success. That may not fit the myth, but it is the man — and should guide all those who seek to claim his mantle.

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