OK, I'll admit it: When I was 18, in 1980, after voting for John Anderson in the primary, I cast my first general election vote for Ronald Reagan. Call it a youthful indiscretion. Yes, Jimmy Carter's been great out of office, but back then I couldn't stand the whole weak, sweater-clad malaise thing he seemed to embody as the hostage crisis wore on.
Then I woke up. The idea that Reagan could run up crazy budget deficits while cutting taxes for rich people and services for poor people struck me as reprehensible. Especially when it turned out he was stunningly disengaged from his actual policies.
A budding budget wonk, I stayed up all night reading David Stockman's tell-all, "The Triumph of Politics," repeatedly gasping "oh, no!" as I read how Reagan's team had wreaked fiscal havoc on the country. It took from 1981 to the late 1990s to dig out. And then what? The way Reagan's big deficits froze domestic policy ambition inspired George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to pursue an even more radical sequel when they got the chance.
The older I got, however, the more I came to admire Reagan – not for his policies, but for his life. Like Bill Clinton, Reagan was totally self-invented – an up-from-nothing story of talent and determination. This romantic, Jay Gatsby-esque sense of American possibilities is irresistible. Where else but in America can you come out of nowhere and rise to the most powerful post in the world?
By contrast, it's hard to imagine anything more demoralizing for a democracy than the aristocratic 2000 showdown between the son of a president and the son of a senator.
Then there's Reagan's proof of the power of myth in national life – through which a person can come to stand for things that bear little relation to what they actually do.
Reagan talked endlessly about shrinking government while presiding over government's growth. Under Reagan, federal spending was around 22 percent of GDP. When Bill Clinton left office, it was around 18.5 percent of GDP. Starting tomorrow, Uncle Sam could insure the uninsured, subsidize a living wage of $9 to $10 an hour for the working poor, and make huge new investment in schools for poor children, all while keeping government the same size that it was under Ronald Reagan.
Yet Reagan remains an icon of "small government." Go figure.
Reagan the "tax cutter" raised taxes massively as California's governor. He raised them repeatedly after 1981 to stem some of the red ink from 1981's epic mistake. As every thinking observer has noted, President Bush doesn't have anything like Reagan's sense of responsibility here. Bush is playing a more radical game.
Then there's the dunce thing. Having never met him, I had generally assumed Reagan was an amiable actor scripted by shrewd handlers. Then I read the radio commentaries he wrote in the late 1970s when they were published in 2001 in a book called, "Reagan In His Own Hand."
Since I've written dozens of radio commentaries myself, it won't surprise you to hear me attest to the sonnet-like talents they demand, an exalted blend of wit, hype and compression. Just between us, mulching down complex issues into accessible, entertaining and persuasive two-minute chunks is an underappreciated art.
And guess what? Reagan's commentaries – written out on legal pads on everything from abortion to taxes to communism – were fabulous! No kidding. Reading these totally changed my view of the man.
So here's to Ronnie. He made me a Democrat. He showed us the virtue of being a happy warrior in politics. He and Nancy seemed to share a genuine devotion over decades of marriage, an inspiration in itself. And he was a heck of a radioman.
I only saw President Reagan in person once, in the lobby of a Santa Monica hotel in 1996, when he still occasionally appeared in public= He wore a bright red sweater and looked great. As people took in who was walking across the room, he suddenly flashed a huge smile and tossed off a jaunty wave that made you tingle. It was a gesture that seemed at once deeply authentic and deeply practiced, from decades on the public stage.
No question about it. Ronald Reagan was a star.
Matthew Miller is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.