This year marks the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s heartfelt letter disclosing the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Reagan will enter his 93rd year on February 6. For him, that day will pass as other days have passed recently–physically isolated from the outside world and cognitively separated from those nearest to him. The sunset of his life is not a happy one.
Nevertheless, Ronald Reagan remained a highly visible presence in 2003. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), commissioned in July, rises twenty stories above water and is as long as the Empire State Building is tall. New Reagan books populated the non-fiction shelves during the holiday season, including two more volumes of his correspondence. The Reagans miniseries generated loud protests, extended debates over the Reagan legacy, a bizarre disavowal from CBS President Les Moonves as he banished it to cable television, and several Golden Globe nominations.
Why did The Reagans resonate with so many, even before it debuted? The answer is to be found across the Atlantic in London, England. Visitors to Christopher Wren’s signature work, St. Paul’s Cathedral, are implored by an inscription to “look around” if they seek a monument to the architect. This echoes the funeral oration of Pericles: “the whole earth is the tomb of famous men.” Great men do not require monuments, for their truest legacy is what they have left behind.
So it is with Ronald Reagan. The world and the nation still bear his influence. The Cold War and the USSR are thought of by today’s schoolchildren in the same way they think of World War I and Victorian Britain, distant yet somehow relevant. The current political landscape was cultivated during the Reagan era. When another actor-turned-politician sought the governor’s chair in Sacramento, parallels with 1966 were a foregone conclusion in search of justification. New York Times editor Bill Keller went so far as to call the President George W. Bush “Reagan’s Son” in a 7900-word feature early last year, noting their similar penchants for supply-side tax reductions and “clarity of purpose” in foreign affairs.
Indeed, the pursed lips of George Bush–father and son–will forever live under the shadow of Ronald Reagan’s smile. George H.W. Bush nimbly distances himself from his one-time rival with measured politeness. In a recent documentary on Margaret Thatcher, he gave the impression that the Gipper was the Iron Lady’s ideological lapdog in G-7 meetings. As he derided the importance of the “vision thing,” his 1988 campaign call for a “kinder, gentler America” necessarily implied that Reagan’s America was neither.
The current president is a genuine admirer of Reagan, even if that admiration is oblique. In his 2000 campaign biography A Charge to Keep, the totality of his assessment of the Reagan presidency was simply that it was “a defining one.” Readers are left to their own intellectual devices as to what it defined. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s When Character was King had George W. Bush admit that Reagan was in fact a better president than his father. He also credited Reagan for preventing an American drift “toward European-style socialism.” The interview was conducted some time before he steered a $400 billion prescription drug program through a Republican Congress, so the statement lacked the sardonic value it now carries. In fairness, Reagan’s successors in the California GOP supported the greatest expansion of the Great Society welfare state with unanimity.
One cannot expect this President Bush to ask “What Would Reagan Do?” in the course of policymaking, though one hopes that the essence of Reagan’s core convictions gains greater traction. Throughout his public life, Reagan stood for individual liberty, free-market economics, and a system of limited government that would allow each to flourish. As Reagan wrote to Ms. Noonan after his presidency, “I’ve always believed that individuals should take priority over the state.”
To be sure, Reagan did not always live up to his limited government ideals. His first term as governor included a massive tax increase. His presidential years saw the federal bailout of a major auto company and the continuation of farm subsidies. The 1983 Greenspan Commission increased payroll taxes and the eligibility age to “save” Social Security, a “compulsory government program” that Reagan once decried on the very basis that taxpayers were its ultimate guarantors.
The belief that the federal government is one of limited and enumerated powers was discarded in favor of symbolic dalliances like the Meese Commission on Pornography and ruinous trends like the increased federalization of criminal law. The acceleration of the War on Drugs broadened the exercise of supra-constitutional federal police powers. Where students were once asked to “Just Say No,” they are now subject to urinalysis testing and searches of their persons and effects at gunpoint.
But these shortcomings do not outweigh the tangible successes of what European leaders once called “the American miracle.” Miracles are the product of a transcendent higher power, awe-inspiring phenomena that cannot be explained by human reason. Kick starting the engine of American economic growth and precipitating the downfall of Soviet communism’s great menace were not inevitable providential blessings, however. They were the fruit of bold leadership that fearlessly attacked tired economic and political dogmas on a global scale. Such leadership emanated from what will always be Ronald Reagan’s greatest role–Liberty’s Messenger.
Thomas Jefferson’s pronouncement that “it is the natural progress of things for liberty to yield and for government to gain ground” rings ever so clearly in this post-9/11 era. This “progress” must be thwarted. The pursuit of individual liberty remains the greatest aspiration of American politics, not the accumulation and exercise of raw power. Ronald Reagan understood this, and it ought to serve as the lodestar for a second Bush term. Fundamental tax reform, substantive Social Security reform, and ending corporate welfare provide such opportunities.
Reagan’s legacy is in a state of flux. Will today’s Republican Party move toward a greater realization of his vision? Or will the American road to Hayekian serfdom be marked with awkward Republican footprints and neoconservative road signs? If it proves to be the latter, any monument dedicated to Ronald Reagan will be little more than an exercise in rank puffery and duplicitous grandstanding.
Nikos A. Leverenz is a writer and policy consultant living in Sacramento, California.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl