Ronald Reagan, RIP
In case you have not heard, Ronald Reagan, our 40th president, died over the weekend. The homages and assessments and tributes and essays already have proliferated, and if you cannot find your own, you probably have not made your way to this humble web site, so I won’t be linking (with one exception), though the Washington Post, as it usually does, impressed me with its evenhanded and intelligent coverage among the most major of the major press. I also would encourage all of you to look at Chester Pach’s 2000 HNN essay on Reagan for an early historical view. (Caveat: Dr. Pach was one of my Professors at Ohio University.)
The Reagan legacy will be long debated. Indeed I believe that the big transformation in the political dialogue began not with Clinton and his polarizing effect, or on George W. Bush in the last few years, but rather with Reagan. In that sense George H. W. Bush (could people please stop using Sr. and Jr. to differentiate them?) was an interregnum. In the 80s, and beyond, Reagan was incredibly polarizing, a clear litmus test for where one stood in American politics.
Not surprisingly, this Manichean conception of the world when it comes to Reagan is, or at least should be, seen for what it is: shallow, and at times wrong. This is not to say that liberals should not stand against most of what Reaganism represented nor does it mean that conservatives should run headlong against that same legacy. But what it means is that, as is so often the case, Reagan, while polarizing, was not always wrong or always right, always good or always evil. I do think he sent us in the wrong direction on a whole range of issues – race, economics, labor, gender, gay rights, the role of government, the relationship between government and the Constitution, the role of religion in American life, and a good deal on foreign policy.
That said, on at least that last issue, foreign policy, the Reagan administration deserves a whole lot more respect than many on the left have been willing to concede to him. One way to conceive of this is that, while it may have taken on a different form from what liberals were accustomed to, President Reagan pursued a foreign policy that was fundamentally, well, liberal. In the first two decades or more of the Cold War there was a consensus on foreign policy, indeed a Liberal Consensus, that understood that foreign policy should be predicated on human rights, on fighting tyranny and totalitarianism, on resisting evil. It was liberals who based many of our arguments on foreign policy on human rights, and it was conservatives, realpolitic conservatives, who derided such a conception of the way the world was and how to deal with it. Surely this consensus fell apart, primarily over the issue of the Vietnam War, but there is no reason why it had to. When President Reagan argued that the Soviet Union was an “Evil Empire” he was part of a tradition that evoked Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Scoop Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger, Lyndon Johnson, and myriad others. That many liberals shied away from a central tenet of liberalism in foreign policy does not in and of itself make Reagan’s approach illiberal. There remain questions of means and conduct, of course, but at its essence, Reagan Administration foreign policy can be seen in a tradition that many on the liberal left embrace. It is an obvious and demonstrably fallacious overstatement to assert that Reagan ended the Cold War, but like many of his predecessors, he surely played a role, and it is a role that deserves at least grudging respect, even among those of us unlikely to get an invitation to the VIP buffets at the GOP convention later this summer.
At the same time, that ardency of belief on what would become the neo-conservative right often went too far. Way too far. The Teflon President escaped almost all real responsibility for Iran-Contra, a scandal that ought to be seen as far surpassing either Watergate or Lewinski in scope and importance. In an era when we are engaging in a full-out war on terrorism, both the withdrawal of troops in Beirut and the willingness to subvert the Constitution and Congressional mandate to trade arms to terrorists, even if to get hostages back, has to be seen as a failure of morality, of law, of the fundamental issues that conservatives (and most liberals) know make us a beacon of hope and promise and good in the rest of the world. Further, I can never forgive his administration for its vacuous, harmful, wrong, and, some might say, evil, stances on Apartheid South Africa.
One of the most influential books in American political historiography and one of the classics in the past half century is by my friend and, I hope he would allow me to say this, one of my mentors, Bill Leuchtenburg. At its essence, In the Shadow of FDR’s thesis can be derived from its title: American presidents in the wake of Franklin Roosevelt, whether conservative or liberal, had to operate in the imposing shadow not only of Dr. New Deal and Dr. Win the War, they had to operate in a political climate he largely created. While Ronald Reagan is included in that shadow, he also casts his own. One can imagine a gracefully larcenous historian (please let it be a historian) in future years pillaging Leuchtenburg’s title and argument in In the Shadow of Ronald Reagan. In the end, whatever one thinks of the Great Communicator, the Teflon President, this indicates his importance, his standing, his aura in the pantheon of American leadership. Had I been old enough, I never would have voted for him. I will, however, spend the rest of my career reckoning with him. This may not mean everything. But surely it means something.
Derek Charles Catsam - 7/2/2004
I doubt anyone is reading this far down the list, but to Mr. Hughes I have to say -- you reveal your politics when you place Kerry in the 100% octane liberal message category. You either simply are not paying attention to American politics since Kerry has been a Senator, or you are trying to score cheap points. I'll mock you either way. I just won't take you seriously. No one who actually knows what is going on would lump Kerry in with McGovern or Mondale, unless they are trying to prove themselves to the Rove machine. No serious person sees Kerry as more McGovern than Clinton or Gore in terms of policy.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/7/2004
I have thought for a long time that the national pivot of truly Jacksonian proportions occurred when Richard Nixon and George Wallace (combined) drew 60 percent of the vote in the election of 1968, versus H. H. Humphrey's 40% or so. The only Democratic presidents elected since, Carter and Clinton, both posed as moderates. One thinks of Carter lamenting the fact we had more flag officers in 1976 than at the peak of World War II. He also made a million dollars from a peanut warehouse in Plains, Georgia, which many of us thought could not be all bad. The 100 octane liberal message, a la Mondale, Dukakis or Kerry, however, faces overwhelming repudiation. The current Democrats can win election only to the extent they mask their true feelings about free markets, self-reliance, and God. Those who honestly say what they believe are the Republicans and the Naders.
Stephen Tootle - 6/7/2004
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