Category: It’s Really Complicated
Term in office: 40th president, 1981-1989
Political Party: Republican
Home State: California
“In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan restored the United States to its hegemonic role in world affairs. Calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and admonishing Gorbachev at Berlin to “tear down this wall,” the president drew clear lines in the Cold War sand after the ineffectual diplomacy of Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Determined to win the Cold War rather than fight it out to a draw, he re-invigorated the U.S. military, daring the Soviet Union to catch up. Of course, it could not, and the U.S.S.R. collapsed under the financial strain of matching upkeep costs with U.S. military spending. Domestically, he brought the nation back from Carter-era malaise with a bold series of tax cuts, eliminating government waste along the way. By restoring business confidence, he facilitated an era of wide prosperity ending the vicious cycle of high inflation and high unemployment.”
Very little of the previous paragraph is true, but an alarming number of Americans believe that it is. If we are going to talk about Reagan intelligently, there’s a bit of deprogramming that has to take place first. Reagan’s reputation has been bolstered by a perpetual campaign by conservative think-tanks, coalescing under the aegis of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project. Through their efforts, a litany of airports, elementary schools, parks, and municipal facilities are now named after Reagan, the man who wanted to drastically reduce the scope of government. Seminars and workshops with congressional leaders took place, and the modern myth of Reagan calcified, showing that any lie, if repeated often enough, will gain the appearance of truth. If you watched the 2012 Republican primary debates, I hope you weren’t playing some kind of drinking game where you take a swig of beer every time Reagan was name-checked. If you were, your estate would be buying some mahogany and a plot of earth six-feet deep by evening’s end. To underscore the magnitude of Reagan’s role as the Greatest Republican, when was the last time someone in that party discussed, say, Lincoln substantively?
Ronald Reagan’s pre-presidential career is well known. He earned his bread and butter as a Hollywood actor; never a superstar, he was nonetheless a reliable box office draw along the lines of The Simpson’s Troy McClure. Appalled by Hollywood liberalism during the 50s, as Reagan’s star faded, he tapped into his second wife, Nancy Davis’s, family conservatism, and his faith in free enterprise was bolstered by traveling around the country for General Electric in the 1960s. Tied to resurgent conservative activism in affluent hubs like Orange County, Reagan delivered a stirring address on Barry Goldwater’s behalf in 1964, catapulting him to the governorship of California two years later. Despite his famous 11th Commandment, “thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican,” he lambasted not just any Republican, but incumbent president Gerald Ford, in pursuit of his party’s nomination in 1976. He fell short, but by 1980, he secured the Republican nomination, and the presidency, with a bold new coalition that shattered the dominance the Democratic Party enjoyed for over a generation: Evangelical Christians, Southerners, suburbanites, small-government Westerners, and blue-collar Reagan Democrats who could not abide their former party’s liberality on social issues. With the first Republican Senate since the Eisenhower years riding on his coattails, the Reagan Revolution began in earnest.
I don’t like Ronald Reagan, and am disinclined to pretend that I do. My beef with the Great Communicator is on four grounds.
- An unjust tax structure and budget.
Let’s work on the canard of Reaganomics reviving the economy. There was just one problem with the supply-side economics Reagan advocated as president: it didn’t work. Far from restoring prosperity, economic growth was highly selective and disconcertingly uneven. The average income of the poorest 20% of Americans dropped during his term while income for the top 20% soared– but if you only look at the averages you would never know that. Reagan believed that the money saved by top earners would result in their spending more and starting up businesses, stimulating job growth. What jobs were created, though, were often poor-paying service jobs, with few of the benefits the average worker enjoyed in the 1950s. Rather than trickling down to Americans with less, much of the money saved from the tax cuts was hoarded, invested offshore, or frittered away in something like the Savings and Loan scandal that hit in 1986. Make no mistake- the erosion of the middle class owes much to Reagan. I am a firm believer in evangelical activist Jim Wallis’s maxim that “a budget is a moral document”, and on these grounds the Reagan administration falls short.
Worse, Reagan’s policies deviated from the “Tax and Spend” liberalism he so denounced, to what amounted to “Borrow and Spend.” Embracing deficits, the national debt grew more in Reagan’s presidency than in all of his predecessors put together, turning the U.S. into a debtor nation after decades as the world’s greatest creditor nation. Far from having airports and schools named after him, it would be more fitting if we named the National Debt after Reagan. Although Reagan cut taxes, and eliminated spending in food, housing, and social programs, government spending did not decrease. Instead, the savings was diverted to military spending, much of which was ultimately very wasteful. No liberal could have imagined a way to squander money like the Strategic Defense Initiative, which spent $17 billion for research on a futile program. Far from goading the USSR into spending more on military programs, we know now from the opening of Soviet archives that Reagan’s plan emboldened Russian hardliners and nearly undermined Gorbachev’s hard-earned reforms.
2. Poisoning the rhetoric of poverty and race: Reagan’s penchant for storytelling took a sinister turn here. One misuse of Reagan’s very real oratorical gifts was the sly wink to the unreconstructed South, using language that cast black Americans in a bad light, and implied that welfare worked only to the benefit of lazy minorities, greedily taking advantage of a system designed to help the unfortunate. He spoke at Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site where three civil rights activists had been murdered during the Freedom Summer of 1964, while running for president. He pledged to defend “state’s rights”– and his listeners knew full well that this meant he would not enforce civil rights laws with any great vigor. On the campaign trail, Reagan railed against “big, strapping bucks buying T-bone steaks with food stamps,” using an especially obvious racial code-word. Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s most important speechwriter, crafted vignettes of “welfare queens” collecting multiple checks, eating bonbons and driving BMWs- but the stories were fanciful fictions; such people did not exist, and their stories could not be corroborated. Consider Lois Weis and Michelle Fine‘s monograph, The Unknown City. By interviewing working class men in Buffalo and Jersey City around 1990, the two UB scholars found that white workers almost always viewed blacks as taking advantage of the dole and gobbling up their own “fair share” of public funds. Even those whites who collected food stamps or unemployment benefits when out of a job told Weis and Fine that they “only use it when necessary” and “aren’t dependent on it”- language that suggests that they believed other people, other races, were thusly dependent. All of this had a most insidious effect on the public- turning a program designed to dull the sting of poverty into suspicious handouts for the idle. “Welfare”, a positive term before 1980 (think “health and welfare”) would become a pejorative, an insult, afterward. Lyndon Johnson conducted a war against poverty. Ronald Reagan conducted a war against the poor.
3. Lackadaisical Administrative Skills: Secretary of State Alexander Haig once described the Reagan White House as “mysterious as a ghost ship. You heard the creaking of the rigging, and groan of the timbers, and sometimes even glimpsed the crew on deck. But which of the crew had the helm? It was impossible to know for sure.” In many respects, the nuts-and-bolts of presidential policy was left to a kind of triumvirate of Chief of Staff James Baker, counsellor Ed Meese, and deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver– with Reagan as the public face of these policies, perhaps, but certainly not their progenitor. Blaise about policy, and not particularly inclined to learn about it, Reagan left the details of governing to these men, before replacing the troika with Don Regan in his second term. The Gipper, frankly, did not work especially hard at his job, and late starts in the morning, and wrapping up the day’s work before dinner were not uncommon. He set the presidential record for vacation days, but it only stood for two decades before being shattered by George W. Bush’s time at his Crawford ranch.
Many of his cabinet choices were competent, and some of them, like Richard Schweiker for Health & Human Services, were inspired.* But for every great choice, you get someone like James Watt. Watt, virtually the only bone Reagan threw to the Christian Right after the stellar role they played in his election, was a disaster. While the quote widely attributed to him, “when the last tree is felled, Christ will return to Earth” is apocryphal, it isn’t very far from his belief that an imminent Second Coming made environmental conservation a waste of time. The power of money, perhaps, accentuated those beliefs- Watt was an original “Sagebrush Rebel”, part of the group of Western developers seeking to limit government-owned land in the West, in hopes of opening up territory for mining, lumber, and drilling interests. Exactly the kind of guy who should be put in charge of the department that deals with national parks and environmental stewardship.
Haig’s question remains valid– who was in charge here? Listen to Reagan’s testimony on Iran-Contra, the scandal wherein we sold arms to Iran (remember, the same Iran that held our guys hostage for over a year) and funneled the money to the nun-killing Contras in Nicaragua. In answer to the questions about John Poindexter and Oliver North’s actions, Reagan said some variation of “I Don’t Know” or “I Don’t Remember” a staggering 83 times. If we pillory Clinton for saying dumb things like “It depends on what the definition of the word ‘is’ is” when hauled before the court, we should be equally concerned about Reagan’s time on the witness stand. Reagan’s persistent denial of knowledge suggests one of three equally scary possibilities. He was either a) lying, b) eerily unaware of what his subordinates were up to in matters of global security, or c) he was telling the truth; he actually couldn’t recall. Given that Reagan’s sad bout with Alzheimer’s forced him out of public life just four years after leaving public office, is it possible that he was already struggling with senility?
4. Unwise Use of military power: I’ve already covered Iran-Contra, the biggest postwar abuse of power in the executive branch that didn’t end with someone resigning or getting impeached. This level of covert military adventurism was sadly characteristic of the Reagan years. Sometimes this ended in farce- Reagan picked a fight with defenseless Grenada, whose leaders were becoming friendly with Cuba, on the grounds that it was a “winnable Vietnam” that could restore the reputation of the American military. Other times it ended in tragedy- when over 100 Marines stationed in Lebanon under dubious circumstances were killed by a car-bomb. As a rule, Reagan preferred covert action in cloak-and-dagger operations that should have been retired after the Kennedy administration- consider his actions in El Salvador and Libya as well. In short, the human rights paradigm that Carter worked so hard to craft was callously thrown out the window for short term morale boosts.
So now, I’ve had my say with what went wrong with Reagan’s presidency, and why he does not belong with the greats, or even the near-greats. Now, I have to explain, after all this, why I have him at #20– barely, just barely, in the top 50% of my presidential ranking in spite of trashing much of what he set out to do.
I am happy to give Reagan credit for restoring presidential prestige. Designed from the start as an office to be held by ambitious men willing to use power within limits, Reagan reinvigorated the presidency. He ended the string of ineffectual administrations dating back to the mid-70s. One cruel gibe from the disco era held that if a group of little green men from outer space landed on Earth and said “take me to your leader,” nobody would know who to send them to. With Reagan, you always knew who was the president; even if he approached the presidency as an actor might, “the role of a lifetime”, as Lou Cannon puts it. His performance as president, as such, is sterling. If not for Reagan, we might have had a string of forgettable one-term time-servers who couldn’t provide cogent leadership, like we had from 1837-61, or 1865-1901. Consider what a list of post-Nixon presidencies might have looked like without him: an uninspiring parade lurching from Ford-Carter-Dole-Dukakis-Tsongas, perhaps? (Shudder.) If nothing else, he proved that the presidency could be a vibrant and effectual institution.
I am also moved by Reagan’s real accomplishments in diplomacy. One of the things I love about the presidency is that, every once in a while, something can only be done by the least likely candidate. Only red-baiting Nixon could go to China. Only a Northeastern liberal like Kennedy could initiate tax cuts. Only a Southerner like LBJ could get a comprehensive civil rights bill passed. And only Reagan could secure arms treaties. With Gorbachev (the true architect of the Cold War’s undoing), he signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty, which banned medium-range missiles and led to the destruction of 2,600 armed warheads. Although it eliminated only 4% of warheads, its symbolic value was immense as a sign of amity. Paleo-conservatives like Pat Buchanan howled that Reagan, who talked so much about “peace through strength” on the campaign trail, forfeited this for “peace through parchment.”
But that is about as far as I am willing to bend. The rankings aren’t based on how much legislation got passed, or how successful a president was in achieving his aims– what those policies entailed should count, as should the direction those policies took our country. What we got was massive giveaways to the wealthiest of Americans on the false pretense of spurring job growth, a permanent underclass, the legitimization of paranoia and suspicion over even the most common-sensical government regulations, and a rejuvenated military-industrial complex. So, sorry Grover Norquist, but the Reagan myth cannot be given priority over the Reagan record.
Having said that, many today, including our president, note that on occasion Reagan raised taxes, or negotiated with enemies, or compromised with opponents. But praising Reagan simply because he was more sensible than the Tea Party, which formed nearly 30 years after he took office under a vastly different set of circumstances, does nobody any favors. And yet– you have to look at what did not happen during Reagan’s years. The New Deal survived almost completely intact through the 1980s. Heck, even LBJ’s Great Society, while facing cutbacks, made it through with none of its major programs eliminated. Given how deeply some of Reagan’s loudest and richest supporters wanted to cut the size and scale of government, many of them were sorely disappointed. It isn’t at all absurd to suggest that Reagan’s election was the revolution, but Reagan’s administration was its Thermidor.
All this is to say that Reagan’s presidency is, indeed, “really complicated.” The tension between image and reality, dream and accomplishment, idea and ideology, was never fully resolved. Several of his most worthwhile accomplishments are ephemeral- like “he restored confidence” or “he made us believe in ourselves again.” What can one say about such a president?
Putting Reagan at almost the exact middle of the presidential pantheon is a position that will probably please exactly none of my Northumbrian readers. The weirdos in POW-MIA jackets thumbing through copies of the Warren Commission Report, googling “Ronald Reagan presidential ranking” will be irate that he isn’t in the top 5. Many of my friends reading this will be disappointed that he is so high, especially since social justice and human rights play so large a role in my criteria for presidential greatness. My final take is this: like Jefferson before him, Reagan sought the presidency with expectations that he would rewrite the book, preside over revolutionary change, and overhaul the system– both in the hopes of his supporters, and the fears of his opponents. What we got instead was something quite a bit closer to moderation than many realized at the time. Lucky us.
*- Schweiker was a liberal Republican senator from Pennsylvania, and when running for the GOP nomination in 1976, Reagan announced that if he were nominated, Schweiker would be his running-mate. Intended as a gesture toward party moderates, and designed to undercut Ford from the left, Reagan instead outraged the die-hard conservatives whom he depended on for his support. Strom Thurmond, titular leader of the Southern Republicans, was especially outraged, and this caused a number of conservative delegates to question Reagan’s commitment to the cause. In the end Ford won, partly because of this SNAFU. As a result, no candidate since has announced a running-mate until the nomination is completely sewn up.