Richard Epstein on Reagan's Legacy

Secret of Ronald Reagan's success
Richard A. Epstein
Chicago Tribune
February 6, 2011

Perhaps Ronald Reagan's best performance as a movie star came in "Kings Row," released in February of 1942, months before he joined the military. But in some sense the formula for his greatness as president of the United States is captured in a line from the Herman Hupfeld song "As Time Goes By," which Dooley Wilson brought to the silver screen in "Casablanca" later that year. Reagan's name was (falsely) linked to the role of Rick in "Casablanca" that eventually turned Humphrey Bogart into a screen legend. But the words Wilson crooned — "the fundamental things apply" — capture what made Ronald Reagan a game-changing president.

The secret to Reagan's success was that he cared about the big stuff without troubling himself with the little stuff. The determined simplicity of his vision made him the butt of many a joke by liberal pundits who had him beat cold on IQ points. But in so ridiculing him, his critics misunderstood the key virtues for a political leader.

I have spent my entire career in legal education. Whenever I write about technical subjects, I quickly find myself mired in multiple exceptions to a general rule. "But what about" is the phrase that guides academic inquiry. That approach works for lawyers, who spend inordinate time arguing about novel cases that fall at the margin of two competing principles.

But political leaders are, thankfully, not necessarily lawyers. Their job is to define the terms of the debate. They should leave the details to, well, people like me.

Richard A. Epstein