Assessing President Reagan
This much seems clear: Ronald Reagan was one of the most important presidents of the 20th Century. He was a transformative leader who altered or presided over a change in the course of American History, raising the conservative counter-revolution that had been brewing for more than a decade into a full bore revolution that brought different ideas and values to the forefront of American life — the Reagan Revolution.
For that alone he deserves to have his name attached to the period between 1980 and 1992: the Reagan Era. Only one other president has had a similar honor, Andrew Jackson, who put his name on the early to mid-19th century, the Jacksonian Era.
Reagan often cited another president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as one of his heroes. Perhaps ironic given that his political philosophy was the antithesis of FDR’s New Deal. In a way, Reagan and FDR mirror each other. Their presidencies were the bookends, the yin and yang, of a half-century of social conscience and welfare statism that became important forces in the lives of all Americans. The Reagan Revolution halted this, reversed it to a degree and set the country on a period of materialism and consummate self-interest rivaling the Gilded Age. Like that time of greed and growth, during the Reagan years America also began to complete its long-awaited rise to unrivaled world domination. Reagan’s admiration of FDR, which was genuine, also stands as one of his most contradictory pronouncements. But then he was utterly blithe about his own hypocrisy — and his critics!
Still, we’re unlikely to get a sober assessment of his presidency for years. There’s no reason to expect any serious public discussion of the downside of his presidency for several years: the Constitutional scandal, the rampant high-level corruption, the increase in poverty and polarization.
In terms of iconography, as of 2007, what was recently viewed as a sure thing has fizzled, at least for the moment. Perhaps this is part of the early stages of a reassessment (something that happens to all presidents, Truman being the most notable recent example). The Reagan memorial on the Mall will have to wait the requisite twenty years, even though his supports wanted to have the law changed. Similarly, a move to put his face on the ten dollar bill and possibly the dime has stopped. It would be far appropriate that he replace FDR than Alexander Hamilton. Grover Norquist claimed that his likeness would be Mt. Rushmore by now. Or construction started on it.
That Reagan brought change to the country is undeniable. The debate ought to be about the merit and direction of that change. The list that follows is an attempt to reconcile the glaring and often puzzling contradictions of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his era.
1. He championed family-values yet he was the only divorced president and was estranged from his own children, rarely saw them and they weren't comfortable around him and his wife. He didn’t meet his grandchildren until the 1980 campaign. He didn’t recognize his own son at his high school graduation. Nancy was notoriously cold to her children.
2. He inveighed against the breakdown of traditional values, yet his family defined its very antithesis. “While he railed against the breakdown of traditional values …his daughter Patti was an anti-nuclear activist married to her yoga instructor, his son Ron, Jr. was a ballet-dancer turned freelance writer, his first daughter Maureen was a divorced feminist.”
3. He presented the image of a strong leader. Yet he was “the most managed president in history” (according to Donald Regan, his former Chief of Staff, and before George W. Bush), and was largely unfamiliar with policies and people in his own administration.
4. He proclaimed that America was “standing tall” in the world, yet after the October 1983 terrorist truck-bombing in Beirut, Lebanon killed 241 Marines, he cut and ran, sending the message that terrorists could attack this country with impunity.
5. His supporters say he “won” the Cold War (which is highy debatable), but Beruit was a clear defeat in what came to be known as the “War on Terrorism,” and set a terrible precedent for the future.
6. He was a man of profound grace, gentility and courtesy, yet his presidency ushered in an era of contumely, contentiousness and recrimination unseen since the days before the Civil War. You might say he presided over the Second Era of Good Feelings, an era that was anything but.
7. He was the darling of the religious right, yet he never went to church, except for funerals, and regularly consulted and followed the advice of astrologers. (The Christian Right considers astrology outright witchcraft.)
— Joan Quigley, What Does Joan Say?, was his personal astrologer.
— He was sworn in at midnight, with a candle-light ceremony as Gov. of CA because of her advice.
— He didn’t take Nancy to Rekiavik summit for the same reason.
8. He was dedicated to lowering taxes, yet he presided over several tax increases and one of the single largest tax increases in recent times (The other was passed under Clinton).
9. He was a fiscal conservative who tripled the national debt. During his presidency America went from being the world’s leading creditor nation to the world’s leading debtor nation. His economic policies set in motion the "borrow and spend" profligacy that has characterized subsequent presidential administration, to the determent of the long-term econmic well being of the country.
10. He railed against big government, yet expanded its size and increased its invasive role in our lives.
11. He was known as the “Great Communicator,” yet he regularly distorted or made-up facts and events, ignored whatever didn’t fit his view of things, and time and again confused scenes from movies with actual, real-life events.
12. He proclaimed it was “morning again in America,” yet his policies left the nation even more polarized between rich and poor, black and white, right and left than when he took office.
13. He was extraordinarily patriotic and clearly loved his country, yet through commission or omission he subverted the Constitution and presided over one of the most corrupt administrations (in terms of numbers — 138, indicted or convicted or investigated officials) in history. He personally got sweetheart deals from his wealthy supporters.
14. He led the conservative reaction against decadence and crassness in popular culture, yet his economic expansion brought the crassest elements of American Pop Culture to the world, “McDonaldization” or “Holiday Inn Culture.”
15. He advocated anti-abortion and school prayer amendments, yet he refused to campaign for them and kept their advocates at arm’s length.
16. He opposed abortion yet as Governor of CA signed into law the most liberal abortion rights bill in the country – for which he later apologized.
17. He opposed Affirmative Action yet as Governor of CA, signed in law an aggressive Affirmative Action policy.
18. He championed hard work and the Protestant Ethic, yet he had the lightest schedule of any recent president, took afternoon naps, and frequent vacations, spending one full year of his presidency (in total) at his ranch in California, and this doesn't count weekends at Camp David.
19. He championed the little guy, yet he held the glitziest inaugural in history with 9 separate, lavish balls, $800K fireworks display. Once in office, he cut welfare rolls while his wife spent $209,508 on new White House china, to name just one extravagance, and famously refused to tip waiters and waitresses.
20. And, speaking of Nancy, she represented the “Just Say No” campaign while addicted to prescription drugs.
Yet, for all this, Ronald Reagan ranks with these greats: TR, Wilson, FDR and Truman.
He is the key to understanding the America from the 1980s thorugh pat least the turn of the century and perhaps beyond. He made us feel good about ourselves, which is what Americans desperately sought and probably needed at the time. And the American people loved him for it. The Religious and cultural right revered him and most likely he would have been elected to a third term had he been able to run.