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Reflections on Reagan

June 12, 2004

Now that the orgiastic collective mourning of Ronald Reagan is complete, we can from the distance of a week honestly reflect on the legacy of Ronald Reagan.  Here is a look back at the man and the myth, in his own words and those of who (threoretically) admired him.

Ronald Reagan's Halo

Former President Ronald Reagan passed away on June 5, only one day before the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Americans across the political spectrum will rightly remember his boundless optimism, praise his enduring faith in the goodness of the American people, admire his steadfast determination in halting Soviet expansion and honor his service to his country. He will be mourned (endlessly, as it turned out).

To his legacy, future historians will be less kind. At home, this fiscal conservative ushered in unprecedented budget deficitstripling the national debt in his eight years in office (a figure greater than all the previous 213 years of American history combined). Reagan’s visceral anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric still handcuffs the United States, jeopardizing Americans’ health care and retirement security. (George W. Bush, of course, now represents the Republicans, the party of fiscal irresponsibility.) The touching eulogist of the Challenger disaster also referred to Medicare recipients as “a faceless mass waiting for handouts.” Abroad, the anti-Soviet stalwart who did not negotiate with terrorists retreated from Beirut and presided, knowingly or not, over the illegal and precedent-setting Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal. The man who asked Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall in 1987 also visited the SS cemetery in Bitburg two years earlierSending Robert McFarlane to Tehran with a cake and a Bible was Reagan’s faith-based initiative.

That critical analysis, though, won’t come till later. For now, all we will hear about is Reagan the Gipper, the Optimist, the Great Communicator, and the Winner of the Cold War. Most of all, we will hear about the Reagan Revolution and the reigning conservative ideology of tax cuts, limited government and American unilateralism. It was wrong in the 1980’s and it’s wrong now, but none of that matters.

That, unfortunately, can only mean one thing: conservatives, basking in the warm glow of Reagan’s life, will seek to anoint George W. Bush as his heir. And that can only mean trouble for John Kerry – and the nation.

Nixon's Heir

Update (6/11/04): As predicted hereconservatives have begun their effort to appropriate Ronald Reagan's mythologized legacy for President Bush's faltering reelection effort. In his grotesque and nakedly self-serving eulogy for Reagan, Bush himself transparently tried to make the case:

  • "President Reagan was optimistic about the great promise of economic reform, and he acted to restore the rewards and spirit of enterprise." (Reaganomics = Bush tax cuts)

  • "He was optimistic that liberty would thrive wherever it was planted." (Soviet Union/Eastern Europe = Iraq/Middle East)

  • "When he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name." (Soviet 'Evil Empire' = Iraq, Iran & North Korean 'Axis of Evil')

  • "And where does that strength come from? Where is that courage learned? It is the faith of a boy who read the Bible with his mom." (Reagan convictions = Bush convictions)

Despite these opportunistic efforts and tortured analogies, George W. Bush is clearly emerging as the heir not to Ronald Reagan, but to Richard Nixon.

Not since the days of Tricky Dick has the White House seen such a secretive, paranoid and vengeance-filled occupant. President Bush may not literally have the Plumbers, CREEP (the Committee to Re-elect the President), or the "Enemies List", but in its essence his administration has all the same hallmarks as the Nixon team. The politics of retribution, secrecy, and infallibility are eerily familiar; only the names (Haldeman, Erlichman, and Mitchell versus Cheney, Rove and Ashcroft) have changed.  The litany of Bush secrets, scandals and probable criminality (of which Abu Garaib and Ashcroft's likely contempt of Congress are only the latest) are almost certain to surpass Nixon's in number and gravity.

The Father, the Son and the Holy Goat

Ron Reagan, son of the late president, is an articulate, mild-mannered man perhaps best known for hosting dog shows on television. Since his father's passing, however, Ron Reagan has made it clear in no uncertain terms that he will not let George W. Bush hijack his father's legacy.

The disdain that Reagan the Younger holds for Bush the Younger extends far beyond the stem cell research advocated by his mother.  First, Ron Reagan in his eulogy rebuked Bush for his self-serving comments at the National Cathedral, stating that his father "never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage."   In a forceful June 24th interview on CNN, he dismissed comparisons of Bush to his father ("I bridle at the comparisons between the two men as men...").  He refuted Jerry Falwell's claim that the 40th and 43rd presidents had a mentor-protege relationship ("my father really didn't know George W. Bush from Adam").  He angrily rejected the assertion of one-time Reagan NSA aide William Clark that his father would have opposed stem cell research.  As for Iraq, he fired a shot across W's bow, stating that Ronald Reagan would not have invaded "because it was an unnecessary and optional war."  Later, on the Larry King show, he was clear about Bush's war-time leadership: "we lied our way into the war."

If Ron Reagan has his way, the GOP won't gain any advantage from the memory of the Gipper.  He savaged the Republican Party, flatly stating that "well, I couldn't join a party that, frankly, tolerates members who are bigots for one thing. Homophobes, racists." And as he told Judy Woodruff, "I'll vote for the viable candidate who is capable of unseating George W. Bush."

In His Own Words

Ronald Reagan has passed on, but his words of wisdom live on forever.  Here's only a small sample:

  • "I favor the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it must be enforced at the point of a bayonet, if necessary." (Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1965)

  • "I would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964." (Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1966)

  • "...a faceless mass, waiting for handouts." (Description of Medicaid recipients, 1965)

  • "Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders." (Sacramento Bee, April 28, 1966)

  • "[Not] until now has there ever been a time in which so many of the prophecies are coming together. There have been times in the past when people thought the end of the world was coming, and so forth, but never anything like this."  (December 6, 1983)

  • "...the moral equal of our Founding Fathers."  (Describing the Nicaraguan contras, March 1, 1985)

  • "I know all the bad things that happened in that war. I was in uniform four years myself."  (Reagan spent World War II making Army training films at Hal Roach Studios in Hollywood)

For an extensive compilation of the words of Ronald Reagan, visit The Reagan Years web site.

Memories of Ronnie

Ronald Reagan's last impact was also captured by colleagues and contemporaries, family members and friends.  Again, here is a small sample of their esteem and respect.

  • "He has the ability to make statements that are so far outside the parameters of logic that they leave you speechless." (Daughter Patti Davis from "The Way I See It")

  • " reinventing the wheel." (Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes on preparing the president for press conferences.)

  • "The task of watering the arid desert between Reagan's ears is a challenging one for his aides." (Columnist David Broder)

  • "Poor dear, there's nothing between his ears." (Margaret Thatcher, 1988)

  • "Ronald Reagan knew his own mind."  (Margaret Thatcher, 2004)

For many more fond memories, see The Reagan Years web site.

The Avenging Angel Looks Back to the Future

Many of the arch villains of the Reagan years are still with us.  Some serve or advise the Bush administration, while others have gone on to lucrative careers in the media or corporate influence peddling.

No Ronald Reagan retrospective would be complete without Oliver North. A nostalgic Avenging Angel shines the spotlight on this once and future villain.

Before his stint at Fox and a failed Senate run, there was Iran-Contra, stuffing Fawn Hall, and a felony conviction overturned by none other than Bush WMD panel head Laurence Silberman. North glamorized the role pioneered by G. Gordon Liddy (and carried on by Manuel Miranda) of GOP scandal figure turned conservative martyr.

Recommended Reading

There is a rich literature covering the Reagan years.  Two books provide a nice summary of the period.

There He Goes Again: Ronald Reagan's Reign of Error by Mark Green, Gail McColl Jarrett

Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War by Francis Fitzgerald


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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