It can be said that every great president can be remembered in just one sentence: "He freed the slaves"; "He made the Louisiana Purchase."
Yet, 22 years since he left office and seven years after his death, the name Ronald Wilson Reagan can still provoke a more complex debate.
There is no one phrase that can describe his legacy. Several come to mind: "The Great Communicator," or "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
There is much debate over President Reagan because we all think of him differently. And over time, history sweetens our memories. But no matter what policy disagreements you may have had with him, you have to admire his style of politics. He embodied a spirit of bipartisanship.
He was a conservative Republican, but he understood that in order to get anything done he had to work across the aisle, which he did very effectively.
In his 1983 State of the Union address, President Reagan said, "Let us, in these next two years – men and women of both parties, every political shade – concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government, not the short-range or short-term temptations of partisan politics."
Mr. Reagan had a common-sense conviction that helped his achievements. Sometimes he failed to get what he wanted. Instead of pointing fingers, blaming the other party, or spouting partisan points, President Reagan deftly used his failures to do better. His failures seemed to make him sharper.
Above all, he was a true gentleman of American politics. You would not have seen him giving a speech like many do today – calling his opponents names or giving out generalized insults. Dignity and wit were his weapons of choice.
Former staffers say that his phone logs would show a surprising amount of communication with members of Congress – of both parties. Whether it was at home or abroad, he believed in communication and the credibility of his word.
Good negotiators are careful with their credibility. President Reagan was such a person. When he gave his word, it was a solid promise. I believe that is something we should be mindful of today.
President Reagan served during times of divided government, when one party had the White House and the other controlled at least one chamber of Congress, giving each side some governing responsibility to find solutions.
It was a time when a financial and fiscal crisis brought the two parties together to compromise on tough choices about taxes and spending. In 1983, President Reagan and Speaker Tip O'Neil came together to compromise on Social Security, based on proposals from a commission led by Alan Greenspan.
During the times and attitudes of the Cold War, Reagan took his biggest gamble with bipartisanship: Dealing with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Conservatives applauded when Reagan walked out of the 1986 Reykjavik summit over his refusal to give up his Strategic Defense Initiative. But those same conservatives also vociferously criticized Reagan for signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty a year later. Under the terms of the treaty, both the United States and the Soviet Union were to vastly reduce their nuclear and ballistic missiles.
Reagan was resolute. The same president who had called the Soviet Union the "evil empire" and, not months earlier, told his Soviet counterpart to "tear down this wall" had just signed the biggest reduction in nuclear weapons in either nation's history. As he did with his own political opposition at home, Reagan was willing to work with Gorbachev, just so long as Gorbachev showed willingness to work with him.
Because of these compromises, history will judge him wisely. In a newly released USA TODAY/Gallup poll, nearly one-third of Americans predict history will judge Ronald Reagan an outstanding president, double the number who held that view when he left office. Only President John F. Kennedy has higher ratings. It is proof that while not everyone liked President Reagan's policies, most clearly loved his persona.
If we remember Ronald Reagan with one sentence, let us remember him as one who took big ideas, a craft of words, and a conviction of freedom to change the world.
On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Great Communicator, I hope we embody his spirit of bipartisanship to keep our country strong and united during one of the most critical moments in our history.