Today is the birthday of Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004). Reagan has to be one of the most polarizing figures in American history. People tend to either love him or hate him. Personally, as is typically the case when I weigh historical figures, I am a “neither/both”. I’ve written some about this polarizing leader in my all-the-Presidents post, and in this one about the movies of the 1980s. There are some particular reasons to talk about him at this political moment.
I used to say, diplomatically, to my children, “Overall, history will look kindly on Reagan.” This was phrased carefully so as not to imply that I approved of everything he did, but that on balance, the virtues would outweigh the negatives. Today, for reasons I’ll get to, I’m not so sure. That I would ever have ANYTHING positive to say about Reagan I imagine will hurt and outrage plenty of my friends. There are so many black marks against him. His refusal to lift a finger to combat AIDS amounts to a passive gay holocaust; the War on Drugs and racist demonization of the mythical “Welfare Queen”; his Faustian bargain with religious Fundamentalists who, though a minority, have monopolized American domestic policy for close to four decades; and his enormous increases in military spending combined with an unconscionable lowering of taxes that resulted in the metastasizing of the national debt. I believe in small, prudent government. But I also believe in paying what you owe. Reagan changed America into a nation where it was now okay to pursue profit at any cost and in doing so to shirk your duty to the government, your employees, and your fellow man. And he also brought a new bellicosity to the culture; somehow violence became patriotic and sanctioned at the highest levels. In many ways, Reagan gave birth to millions of monsters, the most monstrous of which is our current president. Trump was the absolute embodiment of the soul-sickness of the ’80s. He was (and is) the poster boy for all the Deadly Sins.
“Some day I will turn America into a banana republic!”
So what’s good about Reagan? Even this will be qualified with criticism, but at bottom it’s this: when it comes to leadership, clarity is a virtue. For Reagan, the over-riding American idea was Freedom, and while he applied it too selectively, he made that idea the drumbeat of both his domestic and foreign policies in a manner that everyone understood. Do you know what Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton stood for? Frankly I don’t. While I feel like I do know what JFK and LBJ stood for, Carter and Clinton not so much. I offer them up as contrasts. In foreign policy, Carter and Clinton seemed to be more in the Nixon mode, a slippery ethic of realpolitik. But here’s what we unambiguously know about Reagan: he was anti-socialist and anti-Communist. That may be said about many, but normally with far less clarity. It defined Reagan so much he became a lightning rod for both the left and right. Domestically, while I am in favor of lean government, I am less a fan of his many of his policies. But in terms of foreign policy: his hard line ended the Cold War. And while, like any war it was not unmarred by atrocities, I have come to see the Cold War overall as a moral undertaking in the mold of the War to Free the Slaves and the two World Wars (none of which was perfect either).
In doing my family history posts, I found myself a bit stymied when it came to the 20th century. I had ancestors and relatives who’d fought in the French and Indian war, the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, but none really in the World Wars. But then it occurred to me that so many people close to me served in the Cold War: my brother, my father, every single one of my uncles, some cousins, and even both of my in-laws (my late mother-in-law was one of the first female marines). I am proud of what they did to help check expansionist, totalitarian aggression. (I almost enlisted myself, but caved at the last second, a story for another day)
Read it. Know it. Try not to live it.
There are things about the Cold War to be decried, yes, and because of that the issue has become murky for some people. Reagan was far too forgiving of right-wing dictators. And as for the early Cold War, I am not a fan of HUAC any more than you are; I can’t think of anything less American. But some people seem awfully confused, creating a false equivalency between America, where some screenwriters were forced to use pseudonyms, and the Soviet Union were tens of millions were killed at the whim of the state. Castro, who jailed and killed political prisoners, homosexuals, and others, dies and “boo hoo hoo!” While I bet — I just know — that trying to get certain people to admit that Ronald Reagan was better for humanity than, say, Gorbachev, would be like pulling teeth. My question for them: “Are ya cuckoo?” You need to look at history from an imaginary height to get any perspective. At this moment, Gorbachev happens to be a huge fan of his current president, Vladimir Putin. What does that tell you?
Which brings us closer to the title of this essay. Reagan is of course turning in his grave because President Trump has sold America to the Russians. He’s pals with Putin, who called the fall of the USSR “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century”. At this very moment, Trump’s taking heat for making a claim for moral equivalency with Russia the wrong way, outright saying that America is no better as a nation than Russia has been! And Trump’s in the pocket of Russian oligarchs, and this is ultimately the largest reason why I say history will no longer smile on Ronald Reagan. The greed of the ’80s ultimately gave us a president who’s a Russian puppet, thus potentially making the Cold War a Pyrrhic Victory, one in which the ultimate winner may turn out to be our former rival. So much for 40 years of staring down Russia. The irony is astounding.
Worst karaoke singer ever!
Those of you on the left: I think most of you realize that the anti-Trump movement has some allies among the admirers of Ronald Reagan, people like George Will and Bill Kristol and Evan McMullen. If you can’t wrap your head around it, I’ve recently latched onto a useful concept. It’s the idea of having people who are allies in some things. Not rejecting people with whom you partially disagree with in toto. I’m sure this is the only way many members of Congress keep sane. Practically everyone has at least one issue they degree with their own party on. The people in the other party are their ally in that one thing. And really — look at almost any historical figure. Most great figures in history, given the less enlightened attitudes of the past, are our allies in some things. Jefferson wrote “All Men Are Created Equal” but he kept slaves. We deplore the slavery but we admire those words. And right now there are many conservatives who believe in the United States Constitution and hate autocracy, and hate Vladimir Putin plenty. These guys — these Ronald Reagan fans — are my allies in these things.