The news that Nancy Reagan had passed away left me wistful, almost nostalgic for the 1980s, so I spent the better part of an hour last weekend looking at old news clips on YouTube, reliving those supposedly halcyon mornings in America. One video clip making the rounds is of Ronald Reagan at a 1980 Republican presidential debate in Texas. Mr. Reagan was asked about his immigration policy. He responded: “I think the time has come that the United States and our neighbors—particularly our neighbor to the south—should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we’ve ever had. But I think that we haven’t been sensitive enough to our size, and our power.”
One wonders whether Mr. Reagan would find a home in today’s Republican Party, or whether his compassionate conservatism would make him persona non grata. That would be ironic, considering how often he is invoked by G.O.P. presidential candidates. Yet do Mr. Trump et al. really know what they’re doing when they call upon the intercession of the sainted Gipper? To be sure, Mr. Reagan was no liberal. Yet with huge exceptions (the AIDS crisis comes to mind), Mr. Reagan was a politician of principle who nonetheless viewed politics as the art of the possible and compromise as an indispensable color in the artist’s palette.
Mr. Reagan’s worldview, in other words, was nimbler and more nuanced than the caricature painted by the likes of Fox News. To wit: Mr. Reagan, it is frequently said, believed that government is the problem rather than the solution. Yet what Mr. Reagan actually said in his 1980 inaugural address was subtler: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Mr. Reagan was not promulgating an immutable ideological dogma but proffering a diagnosis of what ailed the body politic at a specific political and social moment. That’s a far cry from the government-can-do-no-good politics of the current moment.
Mr. Reagan also incurred the wrath of his fellow conservatives. George Will once said that President Reagan, by proposing the abolition of nuclear weapons at a Cold War summit, had essentially abandoned his ideological commitments: “For conservatives,” Mr. Will wrote in 1988, “Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy has produced much surprise, but little delight.” Newt Gingrich described Mr. Reagan’s 1985 meeting with Chairman Gorbachev as “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”
We should keep this in mind when Senator Ted Cruz suggests that President Obama is the leading state sponsor of terrorism, as he did last year; or when a sitting U.S. Senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, refers to the secretary of state as “Pontius Pilate” for negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. As Mr. Reagan once said, “there you go again.”
We should also keep the real Reagan in mind when assessing the pope’s recent comments about Mr. Trump and his proposed great wall of Mexico. As Mr. Reagan said in that same debate in 1980, rather than “talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then, while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can go back, and cross. And open the border both ways, by understanding their problems.”
Pope Francis said that a politician who talks about only building walls instead of bridges does not represent the Christian viewpoint. By that standard, regardless of whatever else he was, it would seem that Mr. Reagan was certainly a Christian.