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Ronald Reagan: 1911-2004

His words and deeds had the ring of freedom

Published June 6, 2004

One of the great spine-tingling moments of the second half of the 20th century came on June 12, 1987, when the president of the United States stood at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, at that wall that so brutally divided the world.

Just like John F. Kennedy more than two decades before, Ronald Reagan chose his ground deliberately and issued a challenge to the Soviet Union, calling out the opposing leader by name:

"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization . . .

"Come here to this gate!

"Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

It is really, really hard to be cynical about that day, even if you don't like Ronald Reagan's domestic policy (more about that later). Diehard critics certainly have tried over the years, saying the Communists were going to collapse anyway and Reagan was just showboating. But that's not what the world saw that day. What the world saw that day was . . . hope.

Hope! How long has it been, really, since we felt so hopeful about what America could mean for the world, and about how the rest of the world felt about America? If you're old enough, you might remember the old TV commercial in which an Eastern European sneaks home to listen to Radio Free Europe, broadcasting the sound of freedom. That was the kind of American beacon that Reagan believed in: a shining city on the hill.

It should be noted that, even when it came to calling the Russians the "evil empire" and tearing down walls and that sort of business, the contemporaneous conventional wisdom was always that Reagan was a blunderbuss. You just didn't say or do things like that. His own State Department tried desperately to block him. He was mocked as an amateur.

But by deciding first what he thought was right, then paying no attention to the criticism, Reagan cheerfully and optimistically did all kinds of things you weren't supposed to do. Soon after he took office, America's air traffic controllers went on strike. Reagan pointed out it was illegal for them to strike, and warned he would fire them if they didn't go back to work. They didn't come back. And sure enough, he fired them, booted them right out, more than 11,000 of them, and somehow the nation got by. As he said it would.

This optimism was the best kind of politics. It carried him from the darkest hour of American conservatism - the 1964 trouncing of Barry Goldwater by Lyndon Johnson - in only 16 years into the White House in a tidal change called the "Reagan Revolution."

From assassinations to Vietnam to Watergate, from gas shortages to 21 percent interest rates to Iran, Americans had been battered and demoralized, and they were desperately ready to hear Reagan's message that it was "morning in America." His party ruled afterward for 12 unbroken years, effectively ending the monopoly of Democratic, New Deal politics that had governed America since the Depression. For the Democrats to regain power finally, it took a man who had learned some of Reagan's own political skills: Bill Clinton.

Reagan made it possible for working-class folks to vote Republican again, especially in the South, many of them the so-called "Reagan Democrats" who stay with the party even today. He broke the mold of a country club Republican Party and created a generation of conservatism that has sired each generation since.

Much of our modern political culture today remains Reagan's doing. The fact that the word "liberal" remains so out of favor, the fact that no sane incumbent rushes out anymore to brag about new taxes or new government programs, are among his legacies.

It would be dishonest, in praising him for his optimism and his bold gestures, not to fault him for the remarkable distance that separated him from the actual details of his presidency. If Jimmy Carter's fault was getting lost in minutiae, sometimes you had to wonder whether Reagan was paying any attention at all.

A cast of charlatans, characters and bullies did damage in his name. His interior secretary, James Watt, suggested it was all right to despoil the environment because the Lord was returning soon. It was the Reagan administration that tried, infamously, to declare ketchup an acceptable serving of vegetables for poor schoolkids.

While Ed Meese chased pornos and cracked down on lawbreakers as attorney general, Lt. Col. Ollie North and John Poindexter and others down in the basement were violating federal laws themselves. The biggest scar on Reagan's presidency was the arms-for-hostages, Iran-contra scandal, although with a frankness rare in modern politics when he went on national television and admitted it was a mistake.

He preached tax cuts but tripled the national debt - and no, you can't lay the blame off on Congress, because Congress pretty much passed what Reagan proposed. His discredited boy wonder budget director, David Stockman, touted "trickle-down" economics, the idea that if rich people and business get enough tax breaks, the resulting benefits will help everyone. The idea survives today under other names, with just about the same results.

The Reagan years were not a time of great sympathy for the disadvantaged or the disenfranchised. It was not that Reagan was heartless personally; just the opposite. But he lived in an outdated, sepia-toned America that the cartoonist Garry Trudeau sneeringly referred to as "a land of Burma-Shave signs and hard-working white people." He believed in a Horatio Alger kind of America, in which the only requirement for success was hard work (and most problems could be blamed on its absence). He was tone-deaf to many contemporary problems, not the smallest example being a shamefully slow response to the advent of AIDS.

No matter. On balance he has to be considered a great man and a great president. He stands in history at the opposite end of the shelf from FDR, the two of them serving as bookends to a period of explosive growth of government power of the mid 20th century. Reagan was as ebullient as Teddy Roosevelt, as stubborn in his principles and as indifferent to criticism as Harry Truman, in his own way as visionary as JFK. He outlived the two great adversaries of his life, the old New Deal coalition and the Soviet Union. How many presidents, upon taking office, would strike a deal with the devil for as much success?

[Last modified June 5, 2004, 22:43:11]

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