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Saint Reagan

May 9th, 2007

It really is fascinating, as well as disturbing, to see how conservatives idolize Ronald Reagan. The man did fit the profile of what conservatives today value: image over substance. When it comes down to it, that’s what he was all about. He was the Great Communicator–an apt designation, because as a president, he did not really achieve that much, but he talked a sweet deal. And that’s why he’s popular among the conservative crowd–because he made them feel good. That, apparently, is all that matters. So long as you can believe something nice, it doesn’t matter what is actually being done.

Reagan’s greatest “accomplishments” were not much more than bystander moments. The economy did not grow because of Reagan any more than it did because of Clinton–yet conservatives bend over backwards to give credit to Reagan while denying it to Clinton. There is muted embarrassment that Clinton’s boom was bigger and more sustained than Reagan’s, something they simply ignore as best they can. Just as they ignore that inequality shrank during the Clinton boom while it expanded during the Reagan boom–one of the elements of a boom that a president can influence, through tax and other policies.

And then there was the fall of communism, which conservatives will soulfully remind you was mostly due to the efforts of Ronald Reagan. Forget all the presidents before him and the bulk of the Cold War. Forget Mikhail Gorbachev, Forget Boris Yeltsin. And hey, forget the fact that Soviet economic policies and corruption corroded the Soviet Union until it collapsed under its own weight. Nope, it was all because Saint Ronnie spent tens of billions extra each year on Defense and glowered the Soviet Union into collapsing. Without Reagan, the Soviet Union would still be going strong today, right?

True character is observed through actions, not by photo ops or good delivery of well-written lines. Reagan’s character coalesced before me in 1983, when 241 American servicemen died when a suicide bomber hit their barracks with more than five tons of explosives. When reporters began questioning the administration’s and Reagan’s own responsibility for allowing the attack to happen–for not having an exit strategy, which left the troops in an untenable position–Reagan reacted in a way that revealed his character how it mattered. He used the deaths of the troops as a political shield. He accused the reporters of saying that the troops died in vain. It did the trick; the reporters recoiled and shut up. Reagan’s image was preserved. But his character, his true character, showed if only for a brief moment. An honest man, a brave man, a man who honors and respects those who served (Reagan never did), that man would sooner resign than to use the honorable deaths of 241 soldiers to cover his own culpability in causing their deaths. These are the kinds of moments that define people: what price you are willing to pay for doing the right thing. Reagan wasn’t willing.

Let’s not forget where Reagan was earlier in life. In the era of McCarthyism, Reagan was on McCarthy’s side, favoring the blacklists and helping the House Un-American Activities Committee as a friendly witness. And when it came to facing the witch hunt, when it came to naming names, Reagan folded. The same year that Reagan took on the duties of president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, a position in which he was supposed to be protecting his fellow actors, he was busy secretly naming his colleagues and putting them on blacklists, causing them to be grilled by the HUAC, killing their careers. (However, he did take one person’s name off the blacklist: Nancy Davis, whom he later married. Make of that what you will.) He later bragged, “We are just a few of the many loyal Americans in Hollywood who have helped to bring about the complete frustration and failure of the Communist Party in the motion picture industry.” And then, in 1980, when running for president, he had the gall to claim that “there was no such thing as a blacklist in Hollywood.”

You can be weak, you can be selfish, you can be petty. But the telling actions of Ronald Reagan showed what he truly was. And while he may have been a Great Communicator, he was a Bad American. Worse, his sterling image has helped a generation of hardcore conservatives virtually dismantle so much of what has made this country great, and fostered a mindset in right-wing circles that has helped destroy the very principles people believed Reagan upheld.

A few months ago, Time Magazine ran a cover which had Reagan shedding a tear because of what the Republican Party has become. The truth, however, is that Reagan, intentionally or not, planted the seed for what has become of the GOP. Shadow government, impulsive spending and out-of-control deficits, class warfare, reckless interventionism, doublespeak, runaway executive power–today’s conservative government is founded upon what Reagan started. To suggest that it would sadden Reagan is contemptuous of the record. This is the House that Reagan Built. This is his legacy. And it matches well with what his true character was.

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  1. Tim Kane
    May 9th, 2007 at 17:06 | #1

    The irony is profound, they hate hollywood, but love the republicans that come out of it. Post-Bush the only hope the Republicans might possibly have would be Thompson and Swartzeneger. Both Hollywood. Reagan once said one of his greatest political advantages is he knows how he looks from every angle. A true actor.

    For conservatives, Reagan’s greatest accomplishment was to merge the wealthy economic elites resenters(those folks resenting and holding a grudge over FDR’s new deal) and the southern bigot resenters (those folks resenting and holding a grudge over the out come of the Civil War and the civil rights movement) Bush added the Christian fundementalist resenters. In short the Entire Republican party is a coalition of various resenter movements that hold a grudge over the progress of history. That they are tearing the country appartnow and destorying it should be no surprise – they resent the whole artiface.

    I think for Conservatives, then, Reagan’s greatest act was the PATCO strike. In this he broke the back of a union movement which turned the tide of Unionism everywhere and guaranteed that all nearly all of the economies improvement would go to the elite rich. Its from this point that wealth begins to become more concentrated. That, I think is the real reason Reagan is so loved. They were able to create the myth that unions were the cause of post-industrialism in the United States, but all the worlds great exporters of cars and the like have unions in those industries.

    It bothers me that people don’t give credit for winning the cold war to Harry Truman. He was the architect of the strategy that won that war. The containment strategy (a fabian strategy for roman history buffs) proved to be ideal for fighting a multi generational ideological war. The terrorism war now is largely an ideological war. We could be winning this war if we just followed Harry Truman’s basic template (with important modifications of course).

    In 1954 Eisenhower, Truman’s successor said that Communism would just fade away in four or five decades. He proved correct. Reagan’s SDI bluff may have moved things up a decade, but event that was aided by Russia’s expensive move into Afghanistan – the combination of the two brought Russia down.

    And while the cold war ended during the Republican tenure, there was no planning for the aftermath of that war. Proper planning and economic guidance could have gotten Russian democracy off on the right foot. We invested the equivalent of $350 billion dollars in todays money on the Marshall plan – Russia could have used that kind of assistance.

    Instead, we sent them a bunch of Republican mindset, free market oriented, Chicago School advisors from the United States. Instead we should have directed them to seek advice from the succesfully developing east Asian models, such as South Korea or Japan.

    A novice at capitalism has no business implementing pure free market policies. Russia quickly went from a second to third world economy: it obviously needed a period on training wheels before going full tilt free market. Korea, after 40 years of rapid growth, is only now cautiously moving towards a free trade model.

    The economic hardships triggered in the Yeltsin era have set Russia back onto an authoritarian trajectory. The current oil bonanza is coloring that authoritarianism in gold.

    If we had followed the cold war up with more of Truman’s example from the end of World War II, Russia would be a friendly, prosperous member of an International Alliance spanning the globe from western Europe, to Japan and South Korea to Canada and the United States. The world would be vastly more stable and prosperous had this been done and we wouldn’t be worrying about loose nukes. (Clinton deserves some blame here too, I think – he maybe couldn’t have provided a Marshall plan, after 1994, but he could have directed them towards the East Asian model.)

    I have myself partly to blame. I was young then, but I voted for Reagan on his second term. So, I guess I harbor my own resentments.

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