Reagan’s Virtues and Republican Myths

The key quality any army officer needs, Napoleon always said, is luck. Without luck mere ability is not enough. As in war, so in politics. Few American presidents in the modern era have been quite so fortunate as Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Hindsight tempts one to assume that victories are pre-destined and that there’s little the defeated side could have done to make voters reconsider their verdict. Perhaps so, but there’s little doubt that Reagan owed much of his success to the fact that he faced Jimmy Carter and then, four years later, Walter Mondale. The contrast between Reagan’s sunny, even giddy, optimism and this pair of lugubrious hand-wringing liberals could scarcely have been more pronounced. Whatever else he did, Reagan at least made it clear that he believed in the Idea of America and the notion that, yes, it would once again be “Morning in America”. Happy—or at least happier—times would be here again.

On the anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, Doublethink Online is running a collection of essays assessing the Gipper’s Legacy in the dawning Age of Obama. Read the previous essays: “Reagan’s Legacy Is Our Own”, by James Poulos and “Learning from Reagan’s Mistakes”, by David Adesnik
There’s a line in War and Peace in which an old Russian takes issue with Napoleon’s claims to greatness. Who, he wants to know, has the little Corsican ever beaten? “Only Germans” and “everyone beats the Germans”. Something similar might be said of the Gipper: he beat the kind of liberals no sane American could stomach voting for more than once.

Yet, 20 years after he left the Oval Office for the final time and nearly five years since the old boy died, two things seem clear: Reagan’s achievements were greater than seemed possible at the time of his scandal-filled presidency; and those achievements have been willfully misinterpreted by a Republican Party that often seems blind to the changes that have swept America since the Reagan years. Perhaps it will be Morning in America again, but not in the way it was in 1980.

In his contribution to this symposium, David Adesnik paid great attention to the folly of the Iran-Contra scandal. Viewed from Europe, however, such emphasis seems to miss the wood for the trees. For all the light it shone on the President’s character and policy-making process, Iran-Contra seems a legacy of the 1960s and 70s rather than a defining element of the Reaganite era.

The victory in the Cold War still stands as Reagan’s great achievement—and rightly so. Yet viewed from 2009 it’s striking how much the Reaganite reality diverges from the Idea of Reagan that has come to dominate the modern Republican Party’s thinking. Far from being the Cold War titan, Reagan was denounced for being, if anything, too soft on the Soviet Union. Not for nothing did Norman Podhoretz publish an essay titled, “The Neoconservative Anguish over Reagan’s Foreign Policy” while Robert Tucker denounced Reagan’s approach to the Middle East as “Carterism without Carter”.

While Reagan was being denounced from the right at home, he was equally unpopular with the left overseas. Demanding that Mikhael Gorbachev “tear down this wall” seemed needlessly inflammatory in Europe. Indeed, despite evidence to the contrary, many Europeans took the view that this Californian cowboy was dangerously keen on replacing the Cold War with a hot one. Not for nothing was the deployment of missiles in Europe met with enormous protest.

Yet Reagan was correct—the shift in his second term that so dismayed the right proved the correct call. His optimism paid off. So too did his confidence in the essential decency of the American—and indeed Western—cause. Talking to the Soviets was not the end of the world, nor even the beginning of the end of it.

Viewed in the post-George W. Bush era, Reagan seems a greater president than ever. Not because all he touched turned to gold—far from it—but simply because the contrast in demeanor between Reagan and his most recent Republican successor is so great. No one would accuse either man of being detail-oriented, but the Great Communicator had a charm that worked wonders.

Nonetheless, since Reagan is deified by conservatives today it’s unfortunate that the Republican Party hasn’t learned that what worked in 1980 is not necessarily applicable or directly transferrable to 2009. America—and the world—have changed. The GOPs declarations of fealty to the Reaganite Ideal would be more impressive if the party didn’t seem to have failed to learn from the essentially pragmatic approach Reagan pursued. Even Iran-Contra, after all, was a marriage between pragmatism (get the hostages home) and principle (support the Contras). Nor, for that matter, was Reagan the champion of small government or fiscal rectitude that his admirers sometimes pretend he was. Once again, the Idea of Reagan has trumped the reality.

Though foreigners saw Reagan as an ideologue, it’s now clear that he was much less rigid in his thinking than the GOP is now. Withdrawing from Lebanon and dialogue with the Soviets were twin episodes that showed the practical, realistic side of Reaganism. His successors prefer the comforts of dogma to the inconvenience of compromise. Would Reagan have launched the Iraq war or refused to talk to Iran? Possibly, but far from certainly.

Still, there was something about Reagan that commanded respect. For all that he presumed that American hegemony was a Yankee birthright, there was a generosity of spirit and a sense of history to Reagan that Goerge W. Bush and his acolytes entirely lacked. Here, for instance, it is worth recalling Reagan’s moving words on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Speaking at Point du Hoc, the president said:

I think I know what you may be thinking right now–thinking, “We were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day.’’ Well, everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren’t. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.

Lord Lovat was with him—Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, “Sorry I’m a few minutes late,’’ as if he’d been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he’d just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken.

There was the impossible valor of the Poles who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold, and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore: the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland’s 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England’s armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard’s “Matchbox Fleet’’ and you, the American Rangers.

As I say, it is hard to imagine Bush or Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney being quite so sensitive or generous. Then again, Reagan had a greater respect for other countries dignity and desire to advance their own interests than did the most recent Republican administration. There was a grace to Reagan that was, in the end, rather uncommon.

Paradoxically, then, the Republican insistence upon Reagan’s greatness has had the consequence of making many suppose that the 40th President was an over-rated actor. Yet, a generation later, it’s the differences between Reagan’s approach to the rest of the world, not the continuities with the Bush administration that are both striking and far from complimentary to the current GOP.

-Alex Massie is a former Washington Correspondent for The Scotsman. He writes a blog for The Spectator.

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