Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dutch Rub

I'm a little bit of a history buff, with a specific focus on U.S. Presidents. In my mind, my all-time top five is set in stone: Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, FDR, and Teddy Roosevelt. The commanders-in-chief that round out my top ten tend to vary: James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson have clinched a spot without question, but I've always believed that William McKinley and James K. Polk are far too underappreciated and that JFK would've been a lock had he finished his first term. So where does Ronald Reagan fit?

Last week marked what would've been Dutch's 100th birthday, and the milestone has not been lost on fawning conservative commentators or the "left-leaning" mainstream media. Life magazine --they still exist, kinda-- published a photo album chronicling Reagan's life and times, and Time magazine raised eyebrows last week with a cover story comparing our 40th president to our 44th. (The contrast between the two men is surprisingly minimal, though the irony was lost on some people.) Where the modern conservative movement treats Reagan like an immortal, there's so much about the man that feels skewed or exaggerated on both ends of the political spectrum. This blog, while somewhat biased, is a solid place to start.

As the blog alludes to, there are two things about Reagan's legacy that I believe are horrifically overlooked: his role in the demise of the Soviet Union and his natural sense of pragmatism. Let's begin with Ronnie's utilitarian side. Reagan was first and foremost a champion of American values, as would be any elected official in this country, but I doubt he ever declared himself a true conservative. With inflation spiraling out of control in his first six months in office, Reagan enacted a sweeping national tax cut; when that backfired in the form of record unemployment, Reagan retreated and raised taxes again... and again... and again. Eleven times between 1981 and 1989 to be exact, usually hitting the poor and lower middle class the hardest. In the long run, the government fell further into debt, and even though inflation faded the national deficit spiraled out of control. Had the Tea Party existed three decades ago, they would've vilified Dutch the same way they tar and feather Obama now (or did, before his recent shift to the middle).

Secondly, there's detente. Reagan was a man of words before action, and had very little use for nuclear weaponry. The famed "Star Wars" defense system was just that, not a specific thumb at a nose to the USSR but a means of protecting America via the space race. Unlike today's more hawkish and xenophobic conservative brand, Reagan wanted to communicate and negotiate with enemy states, and his famed friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev never would've happened if they haven't found a common need for peace and effective arms control. Russia's transition from communism to a pseudo-democracy in the early '90s might've been far bloodier had the US not intervened and become a crucial trade ally.

What I'm saying here can be disputed; after all, I'm comparing the state of American politics circa 25-30 years ago to now, and hypothetical distance feels even longer. Regardless, it feels like conservative activists have dumbed down the Reagan legacy, adding their own embellishments to suit their views, or ignored crucial elements altogether. He was not anti-taxation, he was not a champion of small government, nor was he playing to a strict partisan agenda. Seven years after his passing, Dutch has become an unlikely false idol, and in reality he would've eaten blowhards like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh for lunch. Reagan's apathy towards liberal '80s issues like abortion and apartheid didn't necessarily make him a conservative, but a leader whose drive and determination was focused elsewhere. After a rocky first two years in office, Reagan finally found that right formula of job growth and prosperity, but only after a tremendous amount of trial and error.

In conclusion, Ronald Reagan was a successful president for never compromising or catering to anyone's whims, making only minor adjustments to his general platform. He set the template for the "cowboy president" George W. Bush wanted to be but never was, and the maverick that John McCain built his reputation upon but later rebuked for party puppetry. This is why so many Baby Boomer Democrats brag that he was the only Republican they ever voted for. Simply put, Ronald Reagan was an imperfect president, but he made things work.

1 comment:

  1. great thoughts
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