For most of us now in college, Ronald Reagan was president during our formative years. He was the first president we ever knew and he defined our image of what a president is. When we were young, we didn't really think much about him. He was just an old man with a soft voice who appeared on TV every night. Maybe our parents loved him or hated him and maybe we tried to imitate them, but in truth, we really didn't understand enough to care one way or the other.
As we got older, though, our view of the old man became more complicated. We were told by some how he saved America from the "malaise" of our newborn years when gas was expensive, hostages were in Iran and the economy was ailing. And we were also constantly reminded that we would be footing the bill for his debts. Confusion mounted. But now, after living with two other presidents, the original and still the best "Teflon President" is back in our lives, looming larger than ever.
His name adorns the gargantuan Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington. Congressional Republicans and all other D.C. travelers can now feel a warm glow as they pass through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Earlier this week, PBS broadcast a four-and-a-half-hour documentary on Reagan. And, to complement your reading of Dinesh D'Souza's recently-published book Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, Reagan's official biography will be released next fall. Even The New Yorker, that bastion of liberal snootiness, recently published an article titled "A Celebration of Reagan" (Feb. 16).
Truthfully, I don't get it. I just can't understand the recent and intense, prehumous (as opposed to posthumous) reverence.
Granted, Reagan still casts a long shadow over American politics. When Clinton declared that the era of big government was over, Reagan's fingerprints were all over it. When the Republicans recaptured Congress in 1994, under whose banner were they marching?
Nonetheless, in the Clinton years, both the major political and policy legacies of Reagan have been discredited. "Reaganomics," as his economic policy came to be called, of lower taxes, higher defense spending and a devil-may-care attitude toward the bottom line, has been blamed for the huge deficits of the '80s while Clinton's "anti-Reaganomics" has actually worked. It has contributed to both a growing economy and the elimination of the deficit.
So how is it that while his mind and body succumb to old age, Reagan's legendary teflon continues to keep the bad news just sliding right off of him?
Partly, it's Clinton's fault. With the elimination of the deficit (although not the huge debt), it seems pointless to continue to whine about Reagan's irresponsibility. In fact, as Jonathan Chait points out in the New Republic (Feb. 2), many conservative revisionists are now so emboldened by this fortuitous occurrence that they've taken to arguing the absurd. Ignoring the immediate, post-Reagan recession in the early '90s and the effectiveness of Clinton's policies since then, they claim that it is the healthy economy borne by Reagan that has restored our fiscal health and allowed the budget to come into balance.
Reagan is also currently getting overdue credit for his part in winning the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union was such a surprise and our attention was diverted so quickly to new worries like the Gulf War and economic recession that Americans never really had a chance to crown the victors. Now they do. Reagan may finally be receiving the applause he deserves for his greatest offscreen victory--sending Marxism-Leninism, in his words, to "the ash-heap of history."
Politically, Republicans still need to use Reagan as a unifying force for their fractious, headless party. By providing fresh principles for governing combined with a charismatic magnetism, Reagan has become the FDR and the JFK of the Republican Party.
Perhaps most importantly though, in the messy world of today's politics, the Reagan way just seems more appealing. Like all nostalgia, immortalizing Reagan enables us to escape the present by reminiscing about a simpler, roiser past. As the post-Cold War world becomes more complex, isn't it touching to reminisce about our Oval Office John Wayne standing tall in the saddle against the Evil Empire?
Reagan took his hits in the early '90s as the economy tanked and the deficit continued to grow. Now, as the economy improves and the deficit disappears, his popularity is being restored.
Of course, either extreme love or contempt for this man would represent a return to the ignorant, simplistic outlook of Reagan we had when we first met him. While this return may be tempting, we must resist it. After all, we're older now...we should know better.
Rustin C. Silverstein '99 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. "On Politics" appears on alternate Fridays.
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