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Looking Back On Ronald Reagan's Image

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And to talk about Ronald Reagan's legacy, we turn to NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Good morning.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Of course, we all know this - Ronald Reagan was a two-term president whose ideas live on. But interestingly, his legacy began much earlier than that presidency, rooted right here in California.

ELVING: Yes, his theme song was always "California, Here I Come." He turned a state that had become pretty Democratic by the 1960s - turned it back over to the Republicans. After Ronald Reagan emerged on the national scene - and he ran for president four times himself - the Republicans won California every time from 1968 through 1988 - six presidential cycles. And they won the country in 5 out of 6 of those cycles, so he really led to a resurgence of the Republican Party and certainly to a resurgence of ideological conservatism within the Republican Party, both in California and nationally.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us a bit about how he managed to take his platform from the state of California national.

ELVING: He did it largely through the media, Renee. He did it not only because he was a media figure himself from his Hollywood career and his longtime television career, but by the speeches that he made and that were seen nationally while he was governor. And then, when he left the governorship of California in 1975, he became a radio commentator. Millions of people listened to his radio commentaries - maybe not quite Rush Limbaugh-type numbers, but he was highly influential. And he made those radio commentaries from 1975 up until 1979, just before he launched his 1980 presidential campaign that, of course, brought him to the White House. Here's one from 1975.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: One day, a pretty, fresh-faced young lady - intelligent and sincerely concerned - asked me if abortion wasn't preferable to making a young, unmarried girl have a baby she didn't want and which would, therefore, grow up unloved and probably turn out to be a criminal. I gave an answer which apparently she hadn't considered. I told her there were literally millions of people in this country who wanted but could not have children and who waited eagerly, sometimes for years, to adopt the baby she had described.

MONTAGNE: Ronald Reagan giving a commentary back in the 1970s. Given that so many Republican politicians pitch themselves as a modern-day version of Reagan, what does that say about his legacy?

ELVING: Well, Ronald Reagan was a winner. Even when he left office when his health may very well have already been failing, he was at the top of his numbers, really, for his presidency in terms of personal popularity with the American people. And he was able to turn the White House over to another Republican president in H. W. Bush. And he established a winning issue base for the Republican Party on taxes, on national security, on criminal justice and on social issues.

MONTAGNE: And now in this election, 2016, how do you see Reagan's image reflected in Donald Trump's rise?

ELVING: You know, this is obviously going to be a sensitive question for a lot of Republicans, but they did have these things in common. There was a willingness to buck the party establishment when seen as necessary for his own career. There was, of course, a big media element to it in both cases. We talked about Ronald Reagan's career. Obviously, Donald Trump has also been a creature of the media. And then, finally, there's been a lot of effective messaging. For example, make America great again - his main slogan. Ronald Reagan actually had buttons that said let's make America great again. Now, Donald Trump likes to invoke Ronald Reagan a lot, but really, the differences between them may ultimately outweigh the similarities. So Ronald Reagan was much more of a consistent conservative. And aside from ideology, he was stylistically quite different - warmth, charm and much more inclusivity.

MONTAGNE: Ron, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.