Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Reagan’s Second Act

Media concedes simple truth, not simpleton

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

Ronald Reagan’s death in the midst of a hotly contested presidential election has occasioned all manner of oddities. There was John Kerry, the absolute antithesis of Ronald Reagan, making the pilgrimage to Simi Valley and monitoring his remarks to make sure not a jot of criticism of Reagan escaped his lips. The mainstream media, which once enjoyed telling us what an amiable dunce Reagan was, are now in full beatification mode, with wall-to-wall sound-bite sentimentalism redolent of Princess Di’s mourn-fest.

Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but Reagan’s posthumous second act as media darling is proving him wrong. Those of us who were around in the sixties and seventies when Reagan started his run for the presidency can remember how savagely the elites in the media and academe attacked him, and now must be astonished at the current adoration. The best example I can remember came on the late-sixties comedy show Laugh-In, during a bit that imagined a newscast from 25 years in the future. All the anchor had to do was say, “Today, President Reagan–” and the audience erupted in howls of laughter. To sophisticated liberals, Ronald Reagan’s presidential ambitions were like comedian Pat Paulsen’s–good only for jokes about a dim-witted actor manipulated by the corporate cabal that used anti-communism as cover for its nefarious machinations.

How things have changed. A few commentators in the media bring up Iran-Contra or repeat the canard that Reagan didn’t care about the poor and minorities, but they do so in a quiet voice. Partly this deference to Reagan’s legacy reflects the media’s desire to exploit the event with a pandering sentimentalism.  But I suspect they also want to avoid facing up to a simple historical fact: that most of them were dead wrong about Reagan: the man they derided as a corporate shill turned out to be one of this century’s greatest presidents.

To understand Reagan’s greatness, we have to remember the toxic self-doubt that characterized the seventies and is best epitomized in one of our nation’s worst presidents, Jimmy Carter. The elites in the academy, the media, and popular culture kept repeating one message: the United States and its institutions were hopelessly corrupt, and Americans are the dupes of sinister fascist forces that have created bogeys like communism and the Soviet Union in order to pursue their greed for profit and power. At home, racism, sexism, and environmental degradation were the fruits of these same wicked manipulators and their minions in the Republican Party. All our ideals such as freedom and equality were shams, the camouflage for oppression and exploitation. Vietnam and Watergate were supposedly the evidence for this indictment, the events that justified the failure of nerve that allowed the Soviet Union and its proxies to expand aggressively throughout the late seventies, and that tolerated the first attack by Islamists on the United States, the taking of the hostages in Tehran.

That this estimation was the peculiar superstition and irrational prejudice of a well-placed minority of Americans was proven by Reagan’s political success. Into this miasma of moral relativism and cowardice he injected a simple message, all the more powerful because it was true: America is a force of good in the world, a champion of freedom, the sworn foe of tyranny everywhere. And the biggest tyranny and threat to freedom was the Soviet Union and its minions, the “focus of evil in the world,” an “evil empire.”  While the oppressed in Eastern Europe cheered with relief that finally someone in the West had got it, the sophisticated pundits and intellectuals derided Reagan’s words as simplistic and reductive, without nuance or subtlety, more suitable in a movie like Star Wars than in a presidential speech.

So Reagan the alleged simpleton went to Berlin and said what millions of Americans with common sense had been saying for years: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Any bar-room philosopher uncorrupted by the typical university’s general ed courses could figure out that if communism is so great, why do you need a wall–and hundreds of thousands of troops in Eastern Europe–to keep people from leaving? The “progressives” gnashed their teeth in rage at hearing their failing god besmirched, but the simple truth of Reagan’s question was devastating in its effects. He pulled aside the curtain to reveal decrepit old communist New Man working his ideological dials and levers, while the apologists for communist tyranny in the West squeaked, like the Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” But it was too late. In a year the Communist utopia worshiped for decades by Western useful idiots was gone with the wind.


Reagan’s genius was to articulate what the majority of Americans understood: that a regime responsible for millions of deaths was, quite simply, evil and had to be resisted.  They also grasped what Reagan knew–that as the old Roman Vegetius put it, if you desire peace, prepare for war. Reagan threw down the gauntlet to the Soviets by increasing military spending and making it clear that the decade of “malaise” was over: the U.S. was in this fight to the finish, that the mistake of Vietnam–when we won the war and lost the peace– would not be repeated. Once more we had moral clarity and knew what we believed–that freedom is better than tyranny, that individuals are better able to manage their lives than are various elites or experts. And he was not afraid to say loudly the simple truth that the political values of the United States, for all its faults, represent the most complete embodiment of this idea of individual freedom and is the best hope for all humans who want to live in peace, prosperity, and liberty.

History would prove that Reagan was right about the evil of the Soviet Union, as we learned when that vast prison camp fell and its archives were opened. Many today try to argue that the Soviet Union was in decline and would have collapsed without Reagan, although it’s interesting that hardly any professional Sovietologists were making that claim before 1989. But even if the Soviet Union was tottering, it still required someone to come along and kick away the last few supports. Who knows what events might have given the Soviets new life if Reagan didn’t give that final shove.

The greatest oddity, however, of the current adulation is that we are in the midst of another spasm of self-doubt and moral uncertainty on the part of the same elites, many of whom right now are acknowledging Reagan’s greatness. The hand-wringing in the media over Iraq reflects the same sort of failure of nerve disguised as sophisticated critical thought on the part of those who do not have faith in the rightness of our ideals and values. For the true test of that faith is the courage to accept that action will always carry with it consequences and mistakes we would never choose, and that often some must die today so that more do not die later.

The most important question, however, raised by our consideration of Reagan’s legacy is whether or not George Bush can live up to that model and prosecute the war against Islamist radicalism with the same dedication Reagan showed against communism. After 9/11 President Bush indeed showed that same sort of grit, and suffered the same derision that Reagan endured for calling a tyrannical spade a spade, as Bush did after his “axis of evil” speech.

But since then he has faltered at times, particularly in his adherence to the notion that Islamist radicalism is an anomalous deformation of Islamic civilization created by political and economic conditions, rather than an expression of an essential part of Islam. For the Islamist threat will never be removed until we compel Islamic civilization itself to face up to its dysfunctions and adapt to the modern world, instead of enabling their denial by validating the various excuses–autocratic regimes, globalization, the Israeli-Arab conflict, or colonial and imperial after-effects–always trotted out to obscure the cultural causes of terror.

We won’t know whether George Bush can live up to Reagan’s legacy, of course, until after the election. But one thing we know for sure: John Kerry as president would be the anti-Reagan, his administration a return to the politics of doubt and moral uncertainty that pleases the “progressive” elites, delights our rivals, and heartens our enemies, but that puts this nation at risk. The greatest homage to Ronald Reagan will not be the media’s hypocritical puffery but rather the election of George Bush to a second term.

© 2004 Bruce Thornton

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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