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Reagan's honesty remains an example for presidents

Reagan's honesty remains an example for presidents
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On the eve of what would have been Ronald Reagan’s 109th birthday (or, as he would say, the 70th anniversary of his 39th), the U.S. Senate voted not to remove his fifth successor from office, after being impeached by the House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. 

It is impossible to know, of course, whether Reagan would approve of that verdict. Because he was a good and honorable man, Reagan was always reluctant to believe the worst about people and might have supported the acquittal of the current president. Reagan no doubt would wonder, even if Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE did that of which he was accused, whether removal from office — the death penalty in politics — was warranted, especially in an election year. 

That said, if history is any guide, Reagan would be deeply troubled by many aspects of how Trump conducts himself in office, the most bothersome being how often Trump has such a casual relation with facts.

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Reagan was not perfect, but he was not a liar. Ever. It just was not part of his DNA to be dishonest. The late Michael K. Deaver, a longtime Reagan aide widely credited with being Reagan’s “image guru,” knew him as well as anyone (save Nancy Reagan, of course) and often would say, “What you see is what you get,” meaning that there were not two Reagans. What Reagan said in public is what he said in private. He did not fabricate, exaggerate, or make claims he knew to be false.

Even Reagan’s sharpest political critics conceded that he was an honest man who had integrity. That meant everything to him. In fact, the only time he admitted to being “down” was during the Iran-Contra scandal, when polls showed that Americans did not believe he was unaware of the nefarious deal his rogue aides cooked up. He was bewildered, angry and somewhat depressed about the fact that people thought he was lying.

Reagan experienced a lot of harsh criticism over his career, but no one had ever questioned his honesty and that episode bothered him deeply. To Reagan, his word was gold. Had the Washington Post used the “Pinocchio” standard for dishonesty when Reagan was president, chances are that he would have emerged needing a nose job for lack of prominence.

That’s why Reagan was shocked and deeply disappointed when aides presented him with the stark reality of how his statements denying an arms-for-hostages deal were at variance with the facts. He agreed to publicly say so, in no uncertain terms, apologize, and then take steps to make sure such a situation could never occur again.

Imagine how different things would be today, had Trump accepted the reality of what he did and told Americans that while he never intended his conversation with Ukraine’s president to be a quid pro quo, and he was sorry if his words had that appearance. 

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Donald Trump seems to have adopted the “truth is just another option” approach about virtually everything — from his personal wealth to his accomplishments in office — and no one other than reporters and Democrats seems to care much. Certainly a lot of Republicans and members of Congress don’t appear to. Trump gets away with it because he can. That’s our fault, not his.

Polls show that many people believe all politicians lie. But they don’t. Reagan didn’t. And Trump shouldn’t.

Of the many canards that Trump tells, nothing is more galling or untrue than when he or some of his supporters say he is as good a president as — or even better than — Ronald Reagan. In what universe?

From a policy standpoint, they are not even close. Reagan defeated our greatest adversary, the Soviet Union, winning the Cold War. This was simply one of the greatest events of the 20th century, the victory over Soviet communism. Millions were freed because of Reagan. Millions are free today because of Reagan.

Reagan embraced our allies and enjoyed widespread respect and popularity around the globe. He restored America’s morale, which was no small feat considering what the country had been through with the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis and many other maladies. Reagan tamed the cripplingly high inflation, interest rates and unemployment of the Carter years. He was always a gentleman who respected women, people of color, American institutions, the news media, and even his political opponents. He revered the office of the presidency and viewed his temporary occupancy of it as a sacred trust.

Truth is often a stranger to Donald Trump, but never more so than when he compares himself to Ronald Reagan. Reagan, on the other hand, was far too secure to compare himself to anybody. He eschewed the use of personal pronouns. He said “we,” “us” and “ours,” not “I” “me” or “mine.”

There will be 109 candles on Ronald Reagan’s birthday cake. But there are more than 109 reasons why millions revere Reagan for all his accomplishments, grace, charm, integrity and leadership.

Mark Weinberg, a communications consultant and executive speechwriter, served as special assistant to the president and assistant press secretary in the Reagan White House, and as director of public affairs in former President Reagan's office. He is the author of the memoir, “Movie Nights with the Reagans” (Simon & Schuster). 

Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer and presidential historian. He is the author of four books on Ronald Reagan, is a trustee at Eureka College, Reagan’s alma mater, lectures often at the Reagan Library, taught a graduate class on Reagan at the University of Virginia, and is the author of “December, 1941” (Nelson) and his newest book, “Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother” (Harper Collins). He is founder, chairman and CEO of Shirley Banister & McVicker, a public affairs consultancy based in Alexandria, Va.