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Jun 7, 2004

Ronald Reagan: a rough draft of history

Ronald Reagan has slipped the surly bonds of earth


Ronald Reagan has slipped the surly bonds of earth
Like a number of denizens of the NSW Right, Boilermaker Bill has an
abiding interest in US history and politics. My keenest interest is in
the almost Shakespearean tragedies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
They’re fascinating studies whose downfalls were forced by the deficits
of their character. It’s hard to find the same fascination in the life
and times of Ronald Reagan.

How will history remember him? Probably less favourably than he
deserves. Like the ALP, Democrats are more successful than the right
wing at shaping the stories and legends they build around their heroes.
Almost unique of the post-war Presidents Reagan did little towards
shaping the assessment of history. Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford,
Carter, Bush the elder and Clinton all penned their memoirs. Jackie
Kennedy created the Camelot myth. LBJ gave Doris Kearns Goodwin
unlimited access to write her biography (and self justication) of
him. For Nixon, the rehabilitation of his post-Watergate
reputation rested on his forays into foreign policy, earning him the
title of “The Sage of Saddle River” and a reputation as an elder

Yet Reagan had invited Edmund Morris, author of one of the best
biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, to sit in on his Presidency thinking
that Morris’s first draft of history would place him on the same
pantheon as TR. Morris famously failed to get a fix on Reagan, instead
penning a controversial mix of fiction and fact in “Dutch”. Morris said

“Every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, ‘You know, I could never really figure him out’.”

For all of Nancy Reagan’s efforts in looking out for her husband’s
interests during his Presidency, she worked just as assiduously in his
retirement to safeguard his privacy, particularly after his steady
decline from the effects of Alzheimers.

A favoured parlour game of American historians is to rank the
Presidents from great to mediocre. Conservatives would have us believe
that Reagan ranks among the nearly great Presidents – beaten only by
Washington, Lincoln and FDR. Along the left end of the spectrum, he’s
considered middling to mediocre. The truth as usual, lies somewhere in
between, but I tend towards the former.

If there’s anything that Reagan should be honoured for it was his
preparedness to welcome the initiative offered by Mikhail Gorbachev to
declare a Cold War truce. Like Nixon going to China, only Reagan could
have pulled it off without drawing the ire from his right flank. After
all, they figured, Reagan had been a consistent enemy of Communism,
dating back to his days in the Actors Guild (making him the only trade
unionist to be elected President) where he named names. While there was
thaw in US-USSR relations he still challenged the Soviet leader to make
good his pioneering policy of glasnost with his 1987 call in Berlin:

“Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Within two years the Berlin Wall crumbled as the vestiges of Cold War
Europe were torn down or toppled over by a citizenry no longer under
Communism’s yoke.

Yet his foreign policy reputation will be diminished by Iran-Contra,
which like Watergate before it, has become metonymic: the label
standing for the whole story. And any appreciation of the Reagan’s
legacy will have to address the blowback from believing your enemy’s
enemy to be your friend, which saw support and resources afforded the
Afghanistan’s Taliban and Iraq’s Hussein to wage battle with the USSR
and Iran respectively.

Reagan’s economic legacy fares little better. Bush the elder probably
coined no more memorable phrase when as candidate running in the 1980
primaries he denounced Reagan’s supply side policy as “voodoo”
economics. After eight years as loyal deputy, and knowing that victory
would only be achieved if he was seen building on Reagan’s legacy,
Bush’s 1988 pledge of “read my lips: no new taxes” spoke volumes for
the electorate’s expectation that the Reaganomics formula of tax cuts
and increased expenditure (most significantly on defence) could be
sustained forever. It was Clinton, under the tutelage of Alan
Greenspan, who ended up winding back the deficit to please the desk
jockeys at the New York Stock Exchange only for Bush the younger to
crank the deficit up again with tax cuts to the middle class and the
wealthy, and massive expenditure earmarked for the war on terror.

In the stage show, You’re Dreaming a few years back Max Gillies (whose
take on Reagan was one his more inspired creations) brought the show to
a devastating climax when he portrayed John Howard as a Sandy Stone
type getting ready for bed in his PJs and dressing gown. Rattling off
once radical policies of free trade, privatisation and a deregulated
labour market, Gillies’ Howard delivers the punchline:

But nobody listened. You were all too busy thinking how beige I was.
But now I’ve got everything I wanted. And there’s nothing anyone can do
about it. I bet you’re listening now.

While Reagan’s critics were denouncing him as just a B-Grade actor and
a former mouthpiece for General Electric with few original ideas of his
own, he was otherwise occupied with changing forever the Presidency and
the nation. The Reagan Democrats finished the transition to the
Republicans of the blue collared males, Southerners and conservative
Catholics whose previous allegiance to the increasingly liberal
Democrats waned in the face of anti-Vietnam protests, changing social
attitudes, particularly on women, and the crisis in law and order which
bedevilled many major cities in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Reagan’s massive victory in 1984, where he won every state bar Walter
Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia, was
achieved by a popular mood concordant with the election slogan “Morning
in America”. He had the economic engine powering very nicely, but
little of this was reaching the poorest, with them further marginalised
and living on the streets, in an age when Reagan could not bring
himself to say AIDS. (Incidentally, I’d urge you to see Angels in
America on the ABC this week (Tues, Wed and Thurs 8.30) to witness tour
de force in story and performances. That’s unless there’s succesful
pressure on the ABC to reschedule what contains a searing indictment of
the Reagan Administration).

There is no doubt that Reagan was the “Great Communicator”. Of his
predecessors, only FDR and JFK approached the ease and effectiveness
with which he connected with the voters, shaping and drawing on both
their aspirations and their fears. He had a policy agenda as radical,
if not more so, than Barry Goldwater did in his ill-fated tilt at the
Presidency in 1964 (his opponents turned his campaign slogan back
against him – “In your heart you know he’s right” became “In your guts,
you know he’s nuts”). But Reagan succeeded where Goldwater and Nixon
had failed – to win over the electorate on policies aimed at winding
back the New Deal and the Great Society. In doing so he appeared almost
avuncular using the Presidency not as the bully pulpit touted by
Theodore Roosevelt, but rather as an actor on a stage, where his
character won over the audience, while the critics’ barbs were lost on
both him and his supporters.

The great American leaders have often been those who have presided at
the time of war: Washington, Lincoln, FDR. Reagan, who saw no action
during World War II, was the first non-veteran since FDR to become
President. Like Sherlock Holmes’ dog who never barked, it is the
absence of war on Reagan’s watch that will become his greatest legacy.
Thawing the relations with the Soviet Union was no small feat in a
period of time where the prospect of nuclear conflict was the stuff of
movies and television – remember the nuclear war themed films, The Day
After and Amerika? The tension in East-West relations that saw the
Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Berlin Wall and the less
than successful détente policies in the 1970s had been ameliorated.

AS he publicly announced his withdrawal from public life due to his
Alzheimers, Ronald Reagan said that he was beginning his journey “that
will lead me to the sunset of my life.” Typically Reagan, a little bit
corny, a little bit mawkish, it nevertheless conveyed what he wanted:
that death was the only release from this disease that had gripped him
and robbed him of his gift of being the “Great Communicator”. The sun
has come down on a life and a Presidential career which saw seismic
shifts in politics and economics. He may have blithely walked through
his role as President, but history will recognise him being there to
open that gate and bring down that wall to signify the cessation of
Cold War hostilities.

Boilermaker Bill can be contacted at boilermaker_bill@hotmail.com


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