Ronald Reagan was one of my favorite presidents, even though I didn't vote for him. Either time.
It wasn't that I didn't like him; he came across as a very likeable candidate. It wasn't that I despised his positions; in fact I was surprised by and somewhat drawn to his central message that government was often the problem, not the solution. Surprised because I was used to equating "conservative" with "establishment" and in many ways, Reagan was very anti-establishment, at least insofar as Washington was concerned.
But in many other ways, he embodied the establishment, in that he was not only a Republican, but at that time the most conservative Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater, with a reputation as a hawkish cowboy (sounds familiar, doesn't it?). On the social issues of the day - the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, gay rights, cutting government programs - I was completely opposed to his agenda. On defense and national security, I was a bit more mixed - the Iranian hostage crisis had dragged on endlessly until it had become just background noise to the election, and while I didn't blame Jimmy Carter, I often wondered if replacing him with a more hawkish president would make Khomeini think twice about threatening the safety of American nationals. In the debate when Reagan was asked if he knew the names of the leaders of Iran, he responded by admitting he didn't, but then followed it with: "But if I become president, you'd better believe they'll know mine." It was that kind of tough-talking, unapologetic style that the country hungered for after years of Viet Nam, Watergate, the energy crisis, the Iran hostage crisis, capped by the Soviet invasion of Aghanistan.
But Carter was the sitting Democratic president and I was a liberal Democrat (in many ways I still am), so there was no question of where my vote was going. Still, when Reagan beat Carter in an electoral landslide (but with a scant 50.7% of the popular vote) I was not altogether disappointed. He wasn't my candidate, but he projected an infectious optimism and an old-fashioned sense of patriotism, especially following the "malaise" of the Carter era. It was possible that a dose of Reagan could be just what the country needed as we moved into the '80s. "A Fresh Start" proclaimed the Nov. 17, 1980 cover of Time Magazine following Reagan's election. An inside editorial promised us, "We're off on a special adventure".
Reagan seemed charmed from the start. Iran released the hostages within minutes of Reagan's swearing-in. The general consensus was that the leaders of Iran decided that they needed to make a clean start with the new administration. Little did we suspect that by the end of Reagan's second term, his White House would be secretly selling arms to Iran and funnelling the money to the contras in Nicaragua.
A note before I proceed: I am not writing history here, only reminiscing. If you are looking for a carefully documented recap of Reagan's eight years in office, this is not it. I may be off-base on some of the fine points of the historical record; so be it. My intent is only to share my own memories and impressions of the Great Communicator, while inviting you to read what others have said. Let's start with Tim Blair's roundup of tributes to Reagan from around the blogosphere and around the world. (Via The OmbudsGod!) Eventually, you'll make your way back here.
Of course, not everyone has rosy memories of the Age of Reagan, and in fact Reagan's presidency included some truly distressing policies and events, as Representative John Dingell of Michigan reminds us in a statement made last year (Hat tip: Tom Tomorrow). See how many of these you remember:
"As someone who served with President Reagan, and in the interest of historical accuracy, please allow me to share with you some of my recollections of the Reagan years that I hope will make it into the final cut of the mini-series: $640 Pentagon toilets seats; ketchup as a vegetable; union busting; firing striking air traffic controllers; Iran-Contra; selling arms to terrorist nations; trading arms for hostages; retreating from terrorists in Beirut; lying to Congress; financing an illegal war in Nicaragua; visiting Bitburg cemetery; a cozy relationship with Saddam Hussein; shredding documents; Ed Meese; Fawn Hall; Oliver North; James Watt; apartheid apologia; the savings and loan scandal; voodoo economics; record budget deficits; double digit unemployment; farm bankruptcies; trade deficits; astrologers in the White House; Star Wars; and influence peddling."
Ah, brings back memories...The '80s were indeed a strange era.
Actually, the air traffic controllers' strike was a one of the early pivotal moments in Reagan's reign, and made a big impression on me at the time. PATCO, the air traffic controller's union was threatening to strike. The union felt it had a strong hand and walked off the job on August 3, 1981, hoping to disrupt air travel and force the government's hand. There was just one problem: the strike itself was illegal. As federal employees, the controllers were forbidden to strike. Their calculation was that the government would have no choice but to make additional concessions, or risk air disasters. But Reagan, an old union man from his days as president of the Screen Actor's Guild, understood negotiating tactics and refused to cave. Instead he mobilized 900 military controllers, who joined with 3000 managers and some 2000 non-striking controllers to fill the vancancies created by the strike. The he issued an ultimatum to the union to return to work. When it refused, he fired the air traffic controllers for striking illegally. Going on television to explain his decision, he said simply, "They broke the law." Reagan the actor was convincing in his role as the decisive and resolute president standing up against an illegal strike, and the country supported him.
I remember being fascinated by the brinksmanship between Reagan and PATCO, and thinking that Reagan was taking a huge risk by firing the controllers. But when the FAA contigency plan worked and there were no fatalities, there was a realization that the union had picked a losing fight. Union supporters were saddened by this exercise in union-busting, but most of the country, made to feel powerless by the strikers, were relieved that Reagan had stood firm and called their bluff. It was a defining moment in his presidency, in which he demonstrated that he was in charge and was not going to be pushed around.
Another defining moment was in March 1981, when an assasination attempt was made on Reagan by John Hinckley a deranged loner trying to impress the actress Jodie Foster. Reagan was rushed to the hospital with bullet wounds. He was reported to have told his wife Nancy, "Honey I forgot to duck." When he was brought in for surgery, he surveyed the team of surgeons and said, "I hope all you fellows are Republicans." Insouciant one-liners, tossed off movie-hero style in the face of a life-threatening event, caused a groundswell of sympathy and admiration for Reagan, and from that point on he was able to push his entire agenda with very little resistance. It was considered bad form to oppose a president who had survived an assasination attempt, and had literally demonstrated grace under fire. He was given carte blanche to pursue policies that many considered destructive to the economy, environment, and social safety net.
Throughout the early '80s the economy sputtered along under Reaganomics, also known as supply-side economics or, in George H.W. Bush's famous formulation, "voodoo economics". There were questions about the effectivness of Reagan's policies in turning the country around, and Newsweek depicted him as a sea captain in a storm, exhorting his crew to "Stay the course!" But by mid-decade, the economy responded to his combination of tax cuts and increased defense spending, resulting in a renewed business climate, a thriving stock market and robust economic expansion. For most of the remainder of the decade, only critics pointed out that Reagan was running a huge deficit to fund his expansion.
By the end of his first term, Reagan had won over the country and the 1984 election was a landslide, not only in the electoral college but also in the popular vote. Walter Mondale and his running mate Geraldine Ferraro witnessed the birth of a new category of voter: "Reagan Democrats". People responded to Reagan's themes and leadership style in a way they did not respond to most politicians.
But perhaps the most enduring Reagan legacy was his contribution to ending the Cold War. Reagan came into office as an unapologetic Cold Warrior who referred to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," a rather StarWarsy-sounding phrase that elicited snickers from his detractors, though Russian dissidents and political prisoners later related how amazed and heartened they were that an American president would speak the truth so boldly and plainly. The conventional wisdom among almost all serious people at that time was that Communism was a long-term player on the world scene, a competing political and economic system that needed to be accommodated at some level. There were even questions of whether there would eventually be a "convergence" of the US and Soviet philosophies of governance, and what that might bode in the future. To this, Reagan's response was that Communism was destined to end up on the "ash heap of history". At one point, while preparing for a radio broadcast, he accidentally joked into an open mike that the "Soviet Union has been outlawed...We begin bombing in five minutes." Remarks like this contributed to his image as a trigger-happy hawk who would bring about a nuclear confrontation.
One of the early confrontations with the Soviets came in 1983 over medium-range missiles in Europe. Reagan deployed nuclear-armed Pershing II and cruise missiles into Germany and Britain, in response to 243 existing Soviet SS-20 missiles already aimed at the heart of Europe. Europeans massed in the streets to protest - not the Soviet missiles, but the American ones placed there as a deterrent. The demonstrations against Reagan's missile deployment dwarfed last year's protests over the Iraq war. Ironically, Reagan was implementing a policy decision from the Carter administration, but he became a lightning rod for anti-Americanism in Europe. Fortunately, he had staunch support in Britain from his alter-ego, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose conservative outlook on economics and the Cold War mirrored Reagan's own convicitions.
The Reagan doctrine drew a hard line against Communist expansion no only in Europe but throughout the the Western hemisphere. In 1983, when a Marxist coup occurred on the small island nation of Grenada in the Carribbean, Reagan sent an invasion force in to topple it. Reagan's opponents mocked the spectacle of the mighty US military being used to overthrow what was generally seen as a tiny, inconsequential government. This same doctrine led Reagan to support a deeply compromised government in El Salvador, and the contra insurgency in Nicaragua. That both were implicated in torture and murder was less important to Reagan than that they were anti-Communist. As Reagan's UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick pointed out, dictatorial regimes come and go, but Communist ideology, once in power, did not relinquish its hold.
Reagan presided over a massive defense buildup intended to force the Soviets to stress their economy to match US military spending or fall behind in the arms race. He promoted a largely imaginary and theoretical missile defense shield, formally named the Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI, but quickly dubbed "Star Wars". He even claimed he would share the SDI technology with the Russians, though no one took him seriously on this. Not content with limiting strategic nuclear arms as his predecessor had done, he proposed arms reduction talks with the Russians, which many saw as an excuse to not bargain in good faith, but which eventually did lead to arms cuts on both sides.
Ultimately, events conspired with Reagan to help bring about the fall of the Soviet empire. The personal computer revolution was sweeping the US and transforming the country from an industrial economy to an information economy, but the tightly controlled Soviet system had a hard time integrating this technology -- it would have been tantamount to handing out printing presses to the masses. But to defer development of an IT sector was to fall behind in the economic race. Additionally, the Soviets themselves went through multiple changes of aging leaders, until Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the youngest and most Western-leaning leader ever to hold the Soviet presidency. His advocacy of "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika" (economic reconstruction) provided a basis for US-Soviet dialogue. Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, responded well to this new policy, and the late '80s saw the rise of the Polish labor unions under the charismatic Lech Walesa, with support from Pope John Paul II.
By the end of his second term, Reagan was standing in West Berlin before the Brandenburg Gate, where he made a statement that has become almost as famous as JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner": Mr. Gorbachev, open this Gate...Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Again, Reagan's detractors thought him hopelessly naive. Within a year, the wall was gone.
There were blemishes on Reagan's record that took some of the shine off his presidency. Environmental standards and safeguards took a pounding. School lunch programs were cut back, to the point where the administration was classifying ketchup as a "vegetable". The lack of a serious response to the emergence of AIDS gave rise to the epidemic that is still with us to this day, as detailed in Randy Shilts' book And the Band Played On. And even as he battled Communism, Reagan's moves in the Islamic world set the stage for the current war on terror: Reagan provided funding, weapons and support for the mujahideen warriors in Afghanistan who were fighting the Soviets, including a certain Mr. Bin Laden; in 1983 in Lebanon, 241 US Marines were killed in a terrorist attack and Reagan responded by withdrawing from the peacekeeping mission there, unwittingly sending the message that American power could be deterred by acts of terror; he tilted towards Saddam Hussein in the Iran/Iraq war, in the process turning a blind eye to the horrific human rights abuses under that regime; and he became embroiled in the Iran/Contra scandal, in which his administration secretly traded arms to the government of Iran in exchange for the release of hostages in Lebanon, then funnelled the proceeds to the contras in Nicaragua. The scandal reached all the way to key players in Reagan's cabinet, including then vice-president George Bush, yet Reagan somehow managed to distance himself from it.
Without question, Reagan will always be remembered as the "Great Communicator," a movie actor who used his theatrical skills and knowledge of the media to make the case for his policies and rally the voting public to his side. Reagan was adept on television and in public speeches, always appearing to come straight from the heart. Reporters who followed him marvelled at his timing, the way his voice might catch or his eyes would mist up as he delivered a particularly heartfelt line. Then at the next stop, they'd hear his voice catch and his eyes would mist up at exactly the same point in the speech. The public was simultaneously aware and unconcerned that Reagan was using his skills as an actor to bolster his presidency. They also knew that he did have an unshakable set of core beliefs about America's role in history, its battle against totalitarian ideologies, and the virtues of individual initiative over big government. James Taranto makes this point in his column Best of the Web:
Reagan was a great communicator, a politician who was very good at politics. But to leave it at that--to portray Reagan's triumph as one of form over substance--misses his real import. Reagan leaves an enduring legacy because of what he was communicating, namely a belief in the American ideal of freedom, an ideal that looked far less robust in the 1970s, the era of Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation and 70% tax rates, than it does in the post-Reagan era.
Reagan didn't accomplish everything he set out to do; in particular, he failed to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Even so, the GOP of today is unmistakably a Reaganite party: unalterably opposed to higher taxes, committed to promoting American ideals--which are really universal ideals--abroad.
In the end, I saw Reagan's years in office as enormously important to the development of this nation. He took a country with a battered psyche that was very unsure of its place in the world and re-energized it with his tireless optimism. He came to office proclaiming that there were indeed simple answers to complex problems, and through forcefully and consistently articulating a few simple ideas, helped us see our way through the end of the Cold War, one of the most complex problems of the 20th century. He was a throwback to an earlier American archetype: the All-American boy with humble Midwestern roots who grows up to lead and transform the nation. Ronald Reagan came along exactly when he was needed. It is hard to imagine what kind of world we would live in today had he not been there.