Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Brief, Belated Assessment of the Reagan Legacy

Dear Reader:  This post, originally written as an obituary notice in 2004,  is devoted to a brief appreciation of our departed fortieth President, Ronald Reagan.  Given the massive publicity machine still at work buffing his image, we feel that the countervailing view cannot be too often stated.
He was an important president, but not a great one, as his major accomplishments were all negative: He destroyed our social contract.  He bankrupted the national treasury. He replaced fact with fantasy in the national discourse. He ended twenty years of progress in civil rights and race relations. He was an ardent union-buster. He gave us homelessness and tuberculosis resurgent.  He promulgated the pipe dream of space-based missile defense. He supported the Afghani Mujahadeen, who later became the Taliban and al-Qaida.  He traded arms for hostages, and used the proceeds of arms sales to Iran to illegally fund the Contra War in Nicaragua.  There is credible evidence that his agents negotiated with Iran during the 1980 presidential campaign, to insure that the American embassy  hostages in Teheran were not released prior to the election. This, if proved, would constitute (I believe) the sole instance of treason by an American president, although not precisely during his term of office.  
In lesser matters, he used then President Carter's own briefing book (stolen from the White House) to prepare for a campaign debate. He had the White House redecorated at the expense of private donors,  which elicited the comment by William Proxmire that he had never in public life seen so egregious a conflict of interest.  Reagan also claimed to have been present (as a member of Army signal corps)  at the liberation of Dachau, when in fact he spent the entire Second World War stateside,  making propaganda films in Hollywood. He committed perhaps the most notorious gaffe of the Cold War era, joking in front of a live microphone that bombing of the Soviet Union was to about to begin.  As early as  1986, he suffered prolonged episodes of mental black-out,  as recorded contemporaneously (but never much publicized)  in the memoirs of journalist Leslie Stahl.
He is said by his supporters to have held strong beliefs; but  the question of belief must remain moot in a man of such limited intellect.  Nonetheless, I will admit that he governed by two tightly-held principals: that he would act always to increase the wealth and power of those already wealthy and powerful, and that policy to this end must always  play well as theatre, must indeed  obey a dramatic logic, if no other.  (Witness the firing the air-traffic controllers.) He was, after all, an actor playing the role of president, and he understood this part of his professional responsibility quite well enough.  In this light, the example of his letters, cited as evidence of his broad intellectual engagement in policy questions, is not convincing.  As an actor, he understood the importance of good lines, and was a good enough wordsmith to string together sonorous platitudes in a convincing manner.  The act of writing probably served as a form of rehearsal as well, a means saturating himself in the role.    
In the end his most important achievement was the creation of the modern conservative movement -an unlikely alliance of populists and elitists, proletarians and plutocrats, fundamentalist Christians and intellectual Jews - a collection of disparate parties sharing little save the capacity for hatred, which was to be much exercised during the Clinton Presidency.
Beyond that, his most important contribution to American politics was to show that the truth in any situation can be made to matter less than people's perceptions - a lesson certainly put into practice by George Bush, in the run-up to the Iraq war, but which (lest we forget) was also the leitmotif of the entire Republican party in their assault upon the presidency of Bill Clinton.  
In the end Reagan embodied a model of governance in which a plausible (but essentially hollow)  front man serves as a puppet for hidden interests.  George Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger are the latest examples.  They are, in that sense, the true heirs of his mantle.  
Moving on: it is fashionable to credit Reagan with winning the cold war, and to cite the testimony of Mikhail Gorbachev, who has  certainly been kind in assigning credit to his former negotiating partner.  But two points should be borne in mind:  first, that Gorbachev was smart enough to see that  the Soviet model had become untenable,  and that the Soviet empire was collapsing;  and second that Reagan's impulsive offer -- essentially  to eliminate all nuclear weapons -- was so devoid of sense and calculation as to be laughable.   What it accomplished was to tip Gorbachev that Reagan was sufficiently malleable to be led in a productive direction, which Gorbachev succeeded in doing.  I believe it is as a matter of form that he credits Reagan (most recently on the op-ed page of the New York Times) as a peacemaker. Reagan's record is indeed unimpressive when compared to those of his Cold War predecessors.  
In sum: far from being a great president, I would argue that he will eventually be assigned the place of worst president in the history of our Republic.  He will outpace George W. Bush for that title by virtue of his having essentially enabled the latter's ascent.  In broader historical terms, the political polarization that we now experience nationally  appears to me as a belated skirmish in the American Civil War: those old wounds had been healing for over a century, but Reagan succeeded  in re-opening them.  It is up to us to re-commence the healing, if indeed that be possible.

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