Ronald Reagan: What We’ve Forgotten

A shorter version of this essay appeared in a Reagan commemorative issue of National Review Magazine.

by Victor Davis Hanson

There will be a great deal of blanket praise written about Ronald Reagan in the next few days. Yet I don’t think his legacy will be judged by his unwavering ideological purity. After all, as a realist he once raised taxes and signed liberal abortion legislation in California, as well as pre-selected as his Vice-President running-mate a liberal Governor Schweiker in 1976 to appeal to Republican moderate delegates. Despite his “evil empire” speech, he was not the preeminent American Cold War Warrior. Far earlier Truman and Eisenhower had both fashioned the policy of containment of and deterrence against the Soviet Union. Neither would have seriously entertained Reagan’s sincere proposal of near mutual nuclear disarmament at an American-Soviet summit or offers to share American anti-missile technology.

It was Barry Goldwater who first created the foundations of sagebrush conservatism. In contrast, federal spending went up all but one year during Reagan’s two terms. Ronald Reagan, not George W. Bush, set the precedent of a Republican piling up larger federal deficits than did many Democratic administrations. And Reagan was not the only or even the first outsider in recent times to run for the Presidency on an anti-Washington, anti-big government platform. Jimmy Carter similarly had held no national office, and as a real outsider indeed had governed a much smaller state, showing some resolve in promulgating an intergrationist program in Georgia.

We forget now the various resignations, palace coups, and job switches that involved Al Haig, James Watt, David Stockman, Bill Clark, James Baker, Robert McFarland, Oliver North, Michael Deaver, Don Regan, and a host of others who freelanced and squabbled when they sensed that their boss was inattentive. Iran-Contra and the precipitous withdrawal from Lebanon weakened America’s reputation abroad among its most hostile enemies. Astrology, the sometimes embarrassing confessionalsof the Presidential children, and occasional misstatements about the past did not always reflect bedrock family values.

Instead Reagan’s greatest contributions were often more psychological, nothing less than a reawakening of the American faith in common sense and blunt speech—the forgotten idea that in an increasingly complex and frightening age of competing ideologies, mind-numbing technologies, and the growing cynicism that accompanies modernism, simple solutions were not only still possible, but, in fact, usually preferable. True, his prescient one-liners or off-the-cuff quips sometimes reflected intellectual laziness or perhaps naïve simplicity. But far more often they were insightful ways of cutting through obfuscation—and opponents—to separate truth from lies.

Remember Reagan’s debates against more experienced and conventional politicians that he was supposed to lose? Instead he won precisely because he showed that his opponents’ purported greater grasp of detail and nuance did not result in real wisdom. In May 1967 Reagan quite literally demolished a purportedly glib Bobby Kennedy. Out of fear of being seen as politically incorrect, an unsteady Kennedy was afraid even to use the term “Viet Cong.” Reagan meanwhile smiled and lectured the nation on what evil things the Chinese or Russians might have done had either enjoyed nuclear monopoly. Unlike Kennedy, he could do so, because he believed in what he was saying to be truthful and important to be aired.

In February 1980 an irate Reagan refused to be cut-off in mid-sentence in the debate against George Bush senior—grabbing a hold of the microphone (and with it the audience) to exclaim: “I’m paying for this microphone.” Later an incumbent Jimmy Carter thought that he could rattle the older and supposedly less experienced Reagan by scaring the nation silly over Social Security and nuclear warfare—until Reagan scoffed: “There you go again.” And if that was not enough to crush the sitting President during the October 1980 debate, his closing line—“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”—surely was. With those two sentences he revealed to the nation a different sort of Jimmy Carter whose orneriness in fact hid his own incompetence. By 1984 a predatory Walter Mondale thought he smelled blood in a contest against a supposedly aged, wounded, and ailing Reagan-only to be devoured with the retort that the President would not use Mondale’s youthful inexperience against him. I remember feeling sorry for Mondale, who in response looked exasperated, pasty, and ultimately flummoxed by a suddenly come-alive Reagan.

Reagan’s uncommon good sense extended to sound judgments about controversial people who were similarly outspoken and principled—and thus unpopular if not under constant fire. He was an early supporter of Pat Moynihan’s courageous efforts to end decades of hypocrisy at the United Nations—at a time when even many Republicans still viewed the institution as a sacred cow. Jeanne Kilpatrick’s contentious, but insightful distinctions between Stalinists and right-wing dictators abroad won over an unabashedly supportive Reagan. He praised Soviet dissidents—even as a cautious Gerald Ford refused to meet with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When William Bennet was taking a beating for his unsettling honest talk about the corruption in our schools and universities, Reagan brushed off worries that his Education Secretary was becoming a political liability.

In some cases, Reagan’s blunt words and decisive actions quite literally changed the course of both national and global history. In August 1981 the Air Traffic Controllers’ union (PATCO) assumed it could not only ignore its sworn pledge not to strike, but shut down the entire American aviation grid if did not obtain a 100% raise, one costing the taxpayers some $700 million. Reagan ignored conventional wisdom that the union both was essential to the American economy and had backed him in the 1980 election, and instead gave the 13,000 federal employees 48 hours to return to work—or else. “I’m sorry and sorry for them,” he announced as 11,400 forfeited their jobs, sending a message to Americans that he was serious about fighting inflation and holding unions to their word—and to the world that the Soviets had a far tougher new negotiator on their hands.

By 1980 containment had become détente, which in turn had evolved in the post-Vietnam period into a depressing acceptance that the Soviet Union was simply too powerful ever to be dismantled or perhaps even to be successfully opposed. We would only bankrupt ourselves if we tried, so the conventional wisdom went. The thesis of Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” – not victory over a corrupt and murderous superpower – would later sum up the prevailing judgment of the 1980s about the ‘folly’ of our arms buildup.

In some places a new naiveté had grown up to suggest that somehow Leonid Brezhnev’s autocracy was not all that much different from European-style socialism. In an era of large European communist parties, few had remembered the premier’s 1973 boast in Prague that through détente, rather than military confrontation, lay the Soviet’s best chance to defeat America. Thus later when hundreds of thousands of Europeans went into the street to protest American deployment of Pershing missiles to protect them from even more deadly Soviet counterparts, and when “Gorbymania” swept the continent, Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate, and shouted in June 1987: “Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” No Europeans – and few Americans – would ever have done so much on behalf of Germany. Reagan knew how to sound noble and somber when saying very radical things—the antithesis to a Gore or a Dean who now sound radical and unhinged when saying something silly or trite.

Unlike the supposedly maverick Carter, who in fact surrounded himself with liberal establishment academics and policy insiders, Reagan not only held a deep distrust of the accepted cargo of American governance—Ivy League education, intimate and long familiarity with Washington and New York, and intellectual pretension—but also deliberately tried to avoid the usual language of diplomatic prevarication. His reduction of complex and nuanced problems into simple equations between right and wrong infuriated the elite left, not because he was necessarily wrong, but precisely because he was so often right and thus called into question the entire prerequisites of political sagacity. If Reagan the actor possessed an innate insight into the mentality of nations like communist Russia or China, General Khadafi, or the Iranian hostage-takers, then what in the world was the point of all the erudition without common sense of a Robert McNamara or the impressive resume of Cyrus Vance who so often got it all wrong?

Usually, Reagan pondered a problem, then made a decision, reducing a dilemma seemingly to an easy choice between principle and expediency. His rhetoric was memorable precisely because it flew in the face of conventional wisdom and drew responses like “He can’t say that.” But of course he could—and did—because “that” was so often true.

There were concrete achievements as well. Reagan really did cut taxes at a time when in-the-know pundits were suggesting that European statism was the wave of the future. That America is now further from rather than closer to, the current static economic model of a France or Germany is largely due to Ronald Reagan. I don’t think that we could have fought Gulf War I in 1991 without the prior Reagan rearmament. And it was not a flabby NATO’s reputation for battle-readiness that forced the collapse of the Soviet Union, but rather Reagan’s multifaceted – and unilateral – efforts to restore American military deterrence.

We often think that democratic societies are by nature wholly populist and so distrust snooty experts and vapid intellectuals. In fact, historically democracies often are vulnerable precisely because the people sometimes feels that it lacks the confidence for self-governance without an array of formidable, but often out-of-touch specialists and advisors who know ‘better’ than it the proper course for the country. Thus in all democratic cultures we occasionally witness the strange spectacle of elite and aristocratic grandees – as we have recently seen in the case of a Howard Dean, Ted Kennedy, or John Kerry – who masquerade as common men even as they talk down to the unwashed. Rare, however, it is to see politicians who both distrust the creed of state-enforced egalitarianism and yet speak plainly to the masses as one of their own.

What, then, is Reagan’s legacy? In some ways, George W. Bush—“the axis of evil” and “smoke ‘em out”—is to Clinton as Reagan was to Carter: the supposedly less educated displaying the far greater grasp of right and wrong than his purportedly more informed predecessor in times of peril. The current idea that volumes of position papers and hordes of professors and intellectuals might not be just superfluous, but downright silly, is Reaganesque to the core. So is the belief that a President’s ideas, speech, tastes, and manners, not his net worth, are the better indicators of his humility and lack of pretension.

In the end Reaganism encompassed the very strange idea that a conservative who wished to cut government entitlements could be more popular with the people than its liberal benefactors; that a wealthy self-made man of privilege could feel more at home with a ranch hand or policeman than would a Marxist Harvard professor; that an “aw shucks” naïf could outdebate the best-prepped policy wonk; and that a Hollywood workmanlike actor could take the measure of a Soviet apparatchik or a Third-World cutthroat far better than the brain trust of the US State Department.

Only in America.

Victor Davis Hanson©2004

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