It has been a hundred years since America's 40th President Ronald Reagan, the 'triumph of the embalmer's art', as Gore Vidal noted, was born. So, on examining the art close at hand, what can we make of this political creation on its centennial?
Reagan's values are still a treasure trove for the Republican movement. He was a 'communicator', which, of course, doesn't mean that much was happening anywhere else. Ideas were less important than method. The act was far better than the theory behind it. As that sharp member of the Adams dynasty of US politics, Henry Adams, put it, 'Simplicity is the most deceitful mistress that ever betrayed man.' To that could be added another observation - that practical politics is practiced in ignorance of fundamental facts. Enter then, Reaganomics, with its black magic appeal, and its carefree ability to shred the balanced budget.
As the overly contrived, overly rated 'free world' found itself with a new master (and actor) in the White House of 1980, things became starkly simple. American values were to be shoved down throats and forced down regimes with near insane insistence, armed by the proceeds of the U.S. taxpayer. The 'evil empire', as the Soviet Union was termed by Reagan, served as an ideal, satanic target. The Republican Party apparatchiks took to shedding any fear that the world of politics is less one of evil doing than misguided policies. United under one banner, the conservative movement under Reagan came to look like a mismatched fruit salad - evangelicals, libertarians, radical and orthodox conservatives.
So, we are now faced with those familiar comments that seem to be brought out of cold storage each and every time a special occasion featuring Reagan surfaces. 'Six words spoken by President Ronald Reagan at the base of the Brandenburg gate on June 12, 1987 changed history and, perhaps, brought mankind back from the precipice of nuclear war.' Those words, from Jerry Wolffe of the The Oakland Press (Feb 5).
But surely, Reagan's 'tear down this wall' request to then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev ignores the fact that the cold war was accelerated by the Reagan administration, at least in its early stages, constituting such fantastically absurd notions as 'Star Wars.' Nuclear brinkmanship can hardly be seen to be a bright policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union is seen as a Reagan stroke of genius (it wasn't), and the ending of the Cold War was very much his centerpiece. The role of the communists in allowing their own faith to implode was obviously neglected, and perhaps the Poles, the East Germans and the Hungarians might also have something to say on that score.
Historical forces are often mistakenly attributed to clear human agency rather than blunders, which tend to make up the genuine record of history. Cleo is often unclear in her ministrations. We are still, it seemed, bogged down in the idea that the hero of history is a coherent, developed figure, with foresight and after sight.
Reagan had neither (his second wife, Nancy, had an astrologist to provide a helping hand when the crystal ball of foreign policy misted over), though the tributes, in their rosy, hagiographic detail, keep coming. The words of U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) are all too tedious in their familiarity. Reagan, he claimed, was a 'unifying force for moral good in our nation and our world.' If morality is the equivalent of cultivating inequalities, income disparity and enormous debts incurred on military expenditure then McCotter might have a point. The moral man is a profligate and a militarist in serving God.
Sarah Palin has made Reagan a regular source of inspiration in her speeches. Of appeal were his comments that, 'The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' Those against big government are happy to take Reagan as a role model, though again, this is a curious inversion of what actually happened. Government was never larger prior to Reagan. Both the military industrial complex, and the external creditors of the US, were ever, and will be ever grateful for his legacy. Even some members of the Tea Party are having doubts.