Reagan Counter-Tributes

While the likes of Democratic Underground and Ted Rall jumped in right away, most respectable Democrats waited a few days before jumping in with anti-Reagan pieces. They’re starting to roll in now. The refrain is familiar–Reagan was mainly an affable talker rather than a leader, it was Gorby who won the Cold War, and the economy under Reagan wasn’t as good as we remember.

R.W. Apple, Jr. — Legacy of Reagan’s Presidency Now Begins the Test of Time [RSS]

Clearly, Mr. Reagan died a respected, perhaps even a beloved man, although the affection was far from universal, as is true for any public figure. In office, his popularity, though dented, survived the Iran-contra affair, but popularity is never a reliable test of greatness. Harry S. Truman, now counted among the near-greats if not the greats, retrospectively admired for his prosecution of the cold war, left office with an approval rating of only 23 percent. Warren G. Harding, now disdained, whose stated ambition was to be remembered as the country’s “best-loved president,” came close to that goal after his sudden death in 1923.

It could be argued that Mr. Reagan’s greatest triumphs came in his role as chief of state rather than as chief of government. He was often ignorant of or impatient with the policy minutiae that preoccupy most occupants of the Oval Office, sometimes with unfortunate consequences (as when Oliver North ran amok in the Iran-contra affair, for instance). But his extraordinary political gifts carried him through — his talents as a communicator, his intuitive understanding of the average American, his unfailing geniality even after being hit by a would-be assassin’s bullet, his ability to build and sustain friendships across partisan lines (as with Tip O’Neill, for instance).

Those gifts — and his conviction that words counted for far more in politics than mere deeds — enabled him to convince large majorities that as long as he was in charge, it would remain “Morning in America.” They made it possible for him to redraw the nation’s political map, moving the center so abruptly to the right that even Bill Clinton would proclaim the end of “big government,” and to remold his party in his own image. They gave him the eloquence to lead the country in mourning after the Challenger disaster and to celebrate “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” near Omaha Beach on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

***

Success in war underpins the claims to greatness of many presidents. Jackson wins the plaudits of historians for broadening the character of American democracy by extending the franchise. But he was a celebrated soldier long before he became president, as were Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose standing among historians and other commentators has increased markedly since he left office. Lincoln, F.D.R., Truman and James K. Polk (the victor in the Mexican War) were all wartime commanders in chief.

Mr. Reagan spent World War II, the global conflict fought and won by his generation, making training films in Hollywood. But he came to power as the cold war was nearing a denouement, and he did all he could to hasten the process by beefing up the American military and then, in Berlin, boldly challenging Soviet leaders to “tear down this wall.” After that, it would have been hard for Mikhail S. Gorbachev to believe that Americans had lost their will to resist Soviet power, and he joined with Mr. Reagan to bring the long struggle to a conclusion. It was the result of 45 years of aggressive allied containment, but the commander in chief, as always, got much of the credit.

What evidence is there of Reagan’s “conviction that words counted for far more in politics than mere deeds”? Certainly, words are important–the bully pulpit is arguably the single most important power of the presidency–but Reagan’s two terms were filled with action. Indeed, far more of it than Clinton’s two terms. I’m not sure why Reagan’s lack of combat service in WWII has much to do with his presidential legacy four decades later, but Reagan volunteered for such service and was instead assigned to serve in a capacity where he was more useful to the Army. We’ll get to Gorby later.

Paul Krugman — An Economic Legend [RSS]

In the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a reporter defends prettifying history: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That principle has informed many of this week’s Reagan retrospectives. But let’s not be bullied into accepting the right-wing legend about Reaganomics.

Here’s a sample version of the legend: according to a recent article in The Washington Times, Ronald Reagan “crushed inflation along with left-wing Keynesian economics and launched the longest economic expansion in U.S. history.” Actually, the 1982-90 economic expansion ranks third, after 1991-2001 and 1961-69 — but even that comparison overstates the degree of real economic success.

The secret of the long climb after 1982 was the economic plunge that preceded it. By the end of 1982 the U.S. economy was deeply depressed, with the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression. So there was plenty of room to grow before the economy returned to anything like full employment.

The depressed economy in 1982 also explains “Morning in America,” the economic boom of 1983 and 1984. You see, rapid growth is normal when an economy is bouncing back from a deep slump. (Last year, Argentina’s economy grew more than 8 percent.)

And the economic expansion under President Reagan did not validate his economic doctrine. His supply-side advisers didn’t promise a one-time growth spurt as the economy emerged from recession; they promised, but failed to deliver, a sustained acceleration in economic growth.

Inflation did come down sharply on Mr. Reagan’s watch: it was running at 12 percent when he took office, but was only 4.5 percent when he left. But this victory came at a heavy price. For much of the Reagan era, the economy suffered from very high unemployment. Despite the rapid growth of 1983 and 1984, over the whole of the Reagan administration the unemployment rate averaged a very uncomfortable 7.5 percent.

In other words, it all played out just as “left-wing Keynesian economics” predicted.

In the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a reporter defends prettifying history: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That principle has informed many of this week’s Reagan retrospectives. But let’s not be bullied into accepting the right-wing legend about Reaganomics.

Here’s a sample version of the legend: according to a recent article in The Washington Times, Ronald Reagan “crushed inflation along with left-wing Keynesian economics and launched the longest economic expansion in U.S. history.” Actually, the 1982-90 economic expansion ranks third, after 1991-2001 and 1961-69 — but even that comparison overstates the degree of real economic success.

Well, except that inflation has been at bay ever since and unemployment has remained historically low. And, of course, eight-year averages are rather silly way of looking at unemployment figures–they were very high when he took office and went up for a couple of years before plummeting. Most obviously, though, it’s rather funny to talk about the economic expansion of 1982-90 and 1991-2001 as if they were two totally separate events rather than a minor correction in the midst of a two decade trend. Krugman does get the movie right, though–Reagan was a big John Wayne fan.

Lawrence Martin — Gorby had the lead role, not Gipper

It was Mikhail Gorbachev, who with a sweeping democratic revolution at home and one peace initiative after another abroad, backed the Gipper into a corner, leaving him little choice — actors don’t like to be upstaged — but to concede there was a whole new world opening up over there.

As a journalist based first in Washington, then in Moscow, I was fortunate to witness the intriguing drama from both ends.

In R.R., the Soviet leader knew he was dealing with an archetype Cold Warrior. To bring him around to “new thinking” would require a rather wondrous set of works. And so the Gorbachev charm offensive began.

This is simply an absurd version of history. Certainly, the fact that Gorby was in office was critical to the events that followed. He was a visionary leader who understood that the Soviet system was badly broken and needed Glasnost and Perestroika. Remember, though, that his intent was to rescue the Communist system and maintain dictatorial control, not preside over the collapse of an empire and the total repudiation of the system to which he’d dedicated his life. Reagan’s goal was achieved beyond his wildest expectation; Gorby failed miserably. That said, Apple is clearly right: There was a lot of history before Reagan came to office and, surely, others deserve a lot of credit. Certainly, though, Reagan deserves top billing among the world leaders who brought down the USSR.

Charles Krauthammer — Reagan Revisionism

“Optimism” is the perfect way to trivialize everything that Reagan was or did. Pangloss was an optimist. Harold Stassen was an optimist. Ralph Kramden was an optimist. Optimism is nice, but it gets you nowhere unless you also possess ideological vision, policy and prescriptions to make it real, and, finally, the political courage to act on your convictions.

Optimism? Every other person on the No. 6 bus is an optimist. What distinguished Reagan was what he did and said. Reagan was optimistic about America amid the cynicism and general retreat of the post-Vietnam era because he believed unfashionably that America was both great and good — and had been needlessly diminished by restrictive economic policies and timid foreign policies. Change the policies and America would be restored, both at home and abroad.

UPDATE:
Drudge points out that, during the 1988 campaign, then-Dukasis Lt. Governor John Kerry said some unkind things about Reagan.

1988 Flashback: Kerry calls Reagan Presidency “Moral Darkness” in convention speech
Fri Jun 11 2004 12:32:42 ET

*** The Boston Globe Archives | July 21, 1988 | Walter V. Robinson ***

ATLANTA — Michael Stanley Dukakis, a self-described “very, very long- shot” candidate just 16 months ago, last night became the Democratic nominee for president and his party’s best hope to win the White House since 1976. Earlier, Sen. John F. Kerry took to the convention hall podium, telling the delegates that the “moral darkness” of President Reagan’s presidency will soon end.

“A Republican president once reminded us, ‘There is absolutely nothing to be said for a government of powerful men with the ideals of pawnbrokers,’ ” Kerry said.

“That president’s name was Theodore Roosevelt. And today Theodore Roosevelt would be ashamed to be a Republican.”

Said Kerry: “It is time we once again had a government of laws and not of lawbreakers.”

At least Kerry has the sense not to say this sort of thing this week.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. JW says:

    How about interest rates? My daddy remembers borrowing money to start his contracting business under Nixon, only to watch home mortgage loans dry up under Carter and see the whole business fold in 1979 (for some reason, people couldn’t see their way to paying 25% interest). Reagan’s policies put my daddy back to work building houses within three years. Maybe the revisionists don’t realize there are still a lot of people who actually REMEMBER the 70’s and 80’s.

  2. mark says:

    Incredible. They all speak as if Gorvachev the whole time he was head of the USSR was saying to himself “how can I convince this American cowboy to help me dismantle my empire?”

  3. The Economist — a much more credible source of information — has as this week’s cover a picture of Reagan and the caption “the man who beat communism.”

  4. PoliBlog says:

    Placing Reagan’s Presidency in Perspective
    James Joyner notes that the predictable criticisms of Reagan have begun, which is reasonable. However, in reading his post and the excerpts from the various columnists, along with some similar statements I have heard and read in the last several…

  5. One Fine Jay says:

    Final thoughts on Pres. Reagan
    Freedom of speech never excused the lack of class. Enemies of Ronald Reagan have had all the years before his death to go ahead and launch their assaults on the man’s legacy and persona, to sway public opinion of the man towards what they want him to …