Learning from Reagan

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They will lower Ronald Reagan into his grave this week, after an outpouring of genuine public grief and days of elaborate funeral ceremonies.

He is being portrayed as the Great Communicator, as the man who made Americans feel good about themselves again, won the Cold War, and otherwise became one of the most beloved figures in history.

Naturally, a few things are being glossed over a bit: the Iran-Contra scandal, massive budget deficits, providing aid to nasty right-wing regimes in Central America and dangerously escalating the arms race.

Does any of that bother you?

Yet regardless of your politics, realize that all those things I just mentioned are true, good and bad — and that liberals should salute him nevertheless.

For, like it or not, we need to learn from Ronald Reagan. What he really did was make people feel good about themselves and their country.

Doesn’t matter how he did it. He did it. What’s more, he learned the importance of doing that from one of us progressives, after we had forgotten how or why it was so important. Reagan, who famous, brilliant liberal Clark Clifford called an “amiable dunce,” outsmarted opponents with far higher IQs.

By the way, now that everyone is so involved in hating George W. Bush, it is hard to remember there was a time when liberals may have hated Reagan even more venomously. Critics, including me, said he was out of touch, intellectually lazy and didn’t understand many of his own programs.

That was all true. And yet Reagan kicked our butts. Over and over and over again. We deserved it too. Politically, he was a genius, if not a particularly original one. He learned from the master, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When America was depressed, intellectually and spiritually as well as economically, FDR came to the presidency and made Americans feel better. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he told people, with a jaunty tilt of his chin and his cigarette holder. “Together, we cannot fail.”

Ronald Reagan did exactly that, too, years later. Both made people feel that the president understood them, and that they could take charge of their lives, and that America was a special place where things could be better.

Newspapers, which were all the media that counted in the 1930s, viciously hated FDR, and predicted doom on a major scale if he were re-elected. And he won enormous landslide after enormous landslide.

Democrats did much the same with Reagan. They didn’t get it, even after he stomped their incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, a decent man who couldn’t inspire water to flow downstream, and who seemed to be calling on the American people to be permanently morose.

Four years later, the Democrats offered no inspiring vision, and attempted mainly to scare voters about all the awful things that would happen if Reagan were re-elected. Late in that campaign, pollster Lou Harris told me that a majority of voters agreed more with 7 out of 10 of Walter Mondale’s positions on the issues, rather than Reagan’s.

Then they voted overwhelmingly for Reagan, who easily won every state in the union except Mondale’s Minnesota, which Reagan lost by an eyelash.

By the way, lest you mistake the author of this column for a born-again Reaganaut, let me note that I voted against him every chance I got, and would again. His one major success — (helping to end the Cold War) was due partly to chance (the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev) and partly because this was the one case where Reagan learned, changed and grew.

He came into office as a hard-line cold warrior who threatened to destabilize the delicate balance of power by an orgy of military spending and by trying to develop a fanciful “Star Wars” nuclear defense shield.

That combination might have seriously risked war had, say, a hard-liner like Yuri Andopov remained in power. But three old-line Soviet leaders quickly died, and the much younger Gorbachev came in and realized his system would not long survive unless it included more political and economic freedom.

What he didn’t see was that his system was too rotten to be reformed. Ronald Reagan deserves credit for having the insight to realize that this was a different kind of Soviet leader, and that his “evil empire” vision was out of date.

Still, over time, historians are likely to be less kind to Ronald Reagan’s presidency than what you see on the History Channel this week.

His policy and performance in foreign policy, apart from the Soviet sphere, was sadly lacking, as in Lebanon, where through stupid blunders hundreds of U.S. Marines fell victim to death by terrorism.

His invasion of the postage-stamp-size island of Grenada began conditioning Americans to accept the concept that we should intervene militarily in other countries to “help lead them to democracy.”

Today, we are reaping the legacy of that in Iraq. Domestically, the Reagan years were a time when “I got mine” became intellectually acceptable as a social policy, when it started to become dogma that all taxes are bad, no matter what for, and when we got used to mammoth deficits.

Reagan also was half-alert much of the time, and, later in his presidency, clearly suffering from the onset of senility. The Iran-contra scandal, in which weapons were illegally sold to Iran and the money illegally used to fund right-wing bands in Nicaragua, was, in many ways, worse than Watergate, and tremendously more constitutionally troubling than Bill Clinton’s gropings.

Nobody, however, wanted to impeach Ronald Reagan. And people followed him in large part because he, like John F. Kennedy and FDR, made them want to trust him, and seemed to know where he wanted to go. That’s what leadership is. The tragedy is that these days, especially among those of us on the side of the angels, it is so very rare.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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