Below are some excerpts from an article by Jonathan Rauch, who says that Reagan missed greatness, but nailed rightness.
Reagan would chuckle to hear me acknowledge that he was smart. He understood all along that liberals’ intellectual snobbery was his best friend—something the liberal intellectuals did not grasp then and, for the most part, still don’t grasp now. Bested time and again by Reagan, they might have reconsidered their contempt for him, but instead they chose to turn their contempt on a public dumb enough to be taken in by him. Today, Michael Moore and his legions give President Bush (Yale B.A., Harvard M.B.A.) the same treatment (“Stupid White Men”), with exactly the same result. Liberal condescension is the reason the country adopts so many liberal policies while electing so few liberals.
Reagan might, though, have been genuinely pleased to hear me say not just that he was smart but that he was right. At least, he was right where it mattered most.
So Reagan did more than I had ever imagined a president could do to beat Communism, douse inflation, empower markets, and even—ironically—rebuild public confidence in the federal government he so mistrusted. To which can be added, less momentously but still significantly, pulling off the audacious and elegant bipartisan tax reform of 1986. Quite a record.
He was not, however, a great president, because he had a squalid side. The Teflon president, people called him, because bad news never seemed to stick. Bad news didn’t stick, because Reagan, when confronted with it, could act with breathtaking irresponsibility.
And then there was Lebanon, the least remembered but perhaps, from today’s vantage point, most costly of Reagan’s shrugs. In his first term, Reagan committed American forces to a fuzzily defined peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, where there was no peace to keep. Again and again, he swore that the United States had a vital interest in Lebanon and would not “cut and run,” even after a suicide truck bomber (does that sound familiar?) killed 241 U.S. marines. On February 4, 1984, Reagan said, “If we do [cut and run], we’ll be sending one signal to terrorists everywhere: They can gain by waging war against innocent people.” And then, only a few days later, Reagan skedaddled, insisting lamely that he was merely redeploying the marines—on ships, offshore, floating away. No one was fooled. The signal he sent to terrorists and insurgents was exactly the one he foretold, and the country is still paying the price—in Iraq, among other places.
More important, it must also be admitted that the things Reagan did care about were very important things. And he got those right, which is impressive. More impressive still is that he got them right when the smartest people in his country had them wrong.