Who exactly was Ronald Reagan?
by Victor Davis Hanson
One of the strangest developments following the recent funeral of Ronald Reagan was the emergence of all sorts of “authentic” — and irreconcilable—Reagans. Die-hard conservatives assured us that the California governor who signed the most liberal abortion legislation of the time, raised a $1 billion in taxes, and asked a liberal Governor Schweiker to be his vice-presidential running mate in 1976 was a true-blue, unyielding ideologue now mostly gone absent from the American scene.
The present administration stresses Reagan’s undeniable toughness with the Soviets. Karl Rove’s team wants to evoke Cold-War Reaganism to highlight President Bush’s unyielding stance against terrorism—forgetting that Reagan’s two most shameful moments of his presidency were selling arms to the terrorists in Teheran and running from Lebanon after 262 Marines had been butchered by Hezbollah operatives.
Liberals once slurred Reagan on every occasion. They screamed that he was unhinged, a reactionary nut who would take us to nuclear war (remember the last days of Jimmy Carter’s 1980 campaign?). And they bashed him as a cold-hearted grandee who palled around with glitzy movie stars and bought needlessly expensive White House china as welfare moms were thrown off the dole. Now quite miraculously many of these formerly acerbic critics stress that Reagan was undeniably cheery, a real conciliator no less. “Genuine,” “principled,” and “charismatic” are the adjectives on the lips of the Left, whose subtext is that they could have extend commensurate magnanimity and nonpartisanship to Bush were he not so singularly cold and mean-spirited.
Ron Reagan junior himself picked up on this. Thus he likewise assured us on television that his dad was a sunny, nice guy without malice. In yet another swipe at George Bush, he related that our poor President was scared and trembling in the formidable presence of himself and his wife as he visited the grieving Reagan family—quite an opposite figure from a maverick John McCain, who, we are further told, is the real Reagan heir. None of the Reagans dared to mention that Ronald Reagan said things off the cuff that would have got George Bush impeached—from “If there has to be a bloodbath, then let’s get it over with” during the tense days of campus riots to “I have just signed a law outlawing Russia. We start bombing in five minutes.” — loose-mouth invective that went far beyond “straight-talking.”
Ron Reagan may think that his dad was a fuzzy, fun-loving pop, with an agenda not that much different from that now found in Malibu or Brentwood. But the Reagan I followed never considered gun control, even after the assassination attempt and the pleas of James Brady’s wife. And he did not propose some massive Marshall-plan program to stop the spread of AIDS—similar to the $15 billion outlay called for by, yes, a purportedly trembling George W. Bush.
What is going on here? In part, we are all to be commended for following the Roman axiom of saying nothing but good things about the dead (de mortuis nil nisi bonum). But there are three other considerations as well that explain these strange public pronouncements—time, politics, and Reagan himself.
Liberals can faintly praise Reagan because they were embarrassed by the Cold War and he won it. When former Soviet apparatchiks and giants like Solzhenitsyn alike credit Reagan with ending the Soviet terror, no Leftist wishes to be reminded of the “nuclear freeze” movement, much less an intellectual history that dates back to Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and I.F. Stone. But by praising Reagan and showing some statesmanship now, they can conveniently forget what was once said and done then.
Second, much of the Reagan encomium is aimed at George Bush and the November election. Bush wishes to be seen as the popular Reagan come alive; his opponents are doing everything to suggest that true conservatives don’t preempt (forget Grenada and Libya) and don’t evoke God in their speeches (though, in fact, the real Reagan did more so than Bush).
Third, we make the mistake of seeing a static, consistent Reagan—absurd when we remember he was in the public eye for over a quarter-century, starting out as a fiery anti-Communist in Hollywood and ending with much of the country far more conservative than when he had first entered politics. In all due respect for the younger Reagan, your dad was a firebrand at the 1964 Republican convention, and a polarizing governor—precisely because he gave voice in the bluntest of terms to frustrated, overtaxed Californians. The idea of a grand old man of American politics is mostly a post-presidential phenomenon of the era between 1988 and 2004, an acknowledgement that the country had become more like Reagan than he the country, and the natural sorrow over his long convalescence, mixed with nostalgia for his personal probity after the Clinton catabasis.
The odd thing in all this is that George Bush really does compare favorably with Reagan—and for reasons we tend to forget. It is far harder, in fact, without Reagan’s rhetorical skills and magnetic personality to strike at our mortal enemies, who are as dangerous as the Soviets but far more insidious and stealthy. Bush did so through sheer will power and determination, not aided by rhetoric and charisma.
True, George Bush may talk inelegantly of democracy and freedom; but if successful in the Middle East, he will have done as much as Reagan did to bring the world’s last holdouts into the democratic family of nations.
© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson