|Genre:||Biographies & Memoirs|
This 2009 book, by Pulitzer Prize Winning journalist Will Bunch, explores the contradictions between Ronald Reagan the President and Reagan the Conservative Myth. It basically cuts "The Gipper" back down to size by examining how he actually governed with a largely Democratic House of Representatives in opposition to his more grandiose Republican agenda. In fact, Reagan's first term was a limited mandate brought on more by fatigue caused by the economics of high inflation, the threats real or imagined coming from revolutionary Iran and the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the general leadership inertia of Jimmy Carter than any personal longing for a Hard Right revival.
These years are not just history for me, but the stuff of my young adulthood. That Reagan could even be elected President in 1980 took me as a bit of a shock. And after the economy tanked and unemployment went up to ten percent on the West Coast, I thought he just might become the one-term President he seemed to richly deserve. But gas prices came down and the Federal Reserve rung inflation out of the economy with tight fiscal policies and by late 1983 the worst recession since World War II was over and "The Gipper" was smelling like a rose again. His act of draconian attacks on the liberal programs he once defended as a stalwart Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman Democrat made my teethe grind more than once. And his policy of painting the Soviet Union as The Evil Empire did little more than cause the old men in the Kremlin to hunker down more and postpone the appointment of a reformer like Mikhail Gorbachev.
But the actor and sports announcer and corporate pitchman made his pitches good theater. It must have been hard for conservative-leaning voters not to re-elect a man whose folksiness and ability to make you think he cut taxes--even when he actually raised them for ordinary workers who drew their salaries and wages from company payrolls--and embodied some kind of Sky-God persona was too hard to resist.
Reagan's greatest gift was his ability to take complex problems and make them sound simple and solvable to average voters. "Government is the problem, not the solution," he said in his First Inaugural Address and that largely was the formula the Neo-Conservatives have stuck to, long after de-regulation made any sense. But Reagan's--interestingly a Economics-educated man from a small college south of Chicago--never had an economic proposal that made sense. George Orwell was rocking in his grave as "The Gipper" made many people believe that you could somehow balance the Federal Budget, crank up Defense Spending with a blank check for hundreds of billions to The Pentagon and lower taxes for top income earners---all at the same time!
Reagan's principal opponent in the 1980 Republican Primary was George HW Bush, who called these plans--some bastard Kenseyian version of "supply-side formulas"-- little more than "voodoo economics". But Bush himself changed his tune and got the nod to be Vice-President, thus setting forth a chain reaction of electoral events that culminated in twenty years later in his son, George W's, election, or appointment by The Supreme Court, to the Presidency.
The greatest damage to the country came in the last decade from Reagan-ism--as Bush the Younger tried to "out-royal" the King of Conservatism and drive the deficits higher and engage in wars in Iraq and the protracted fight in Afghanistan--- even some conservative pundits doubt Reagan would have pursued, or presided quite as stupidly. (People conveniently forgot that it was Reagan in early 1983 who pulled out of Beirut, Lebanon after a truck bomb killed 241 Marines in their compound.) It is not damning with faint praise to imagine that Reagan, for all his faults, could have seen the push to invade Iraq in 2003 for what it was---a push inspired by armchair warriors like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld to a dubious end. There is evidence cited in Mr. Bunch's book that Reagan resisted the imploring of the Hawks in his administration to invade Nicaragua full on with American troops. But, like Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, somehow logic and common sense came to the First Magistrate, and another Vietnam was avoided.Bad enough that so many died in El Salvador from American supported death squads.
There was, of course, that Grand Opera invasion of the island of Grenada in October, 1983. Bush the Younger --perhaps seeing Iraq as some larger Grenada-type mission, went ahead with his attack on a nation of 30 million that was no Grenada and costs the lives of 4,000 troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis. Reagan would have had to get up rather early to be that dumb.
But, by 2003, The Reagan Years were the stuff of Legend. And the facts weren't allowed to enter into the argument. He was not a very popular President while in office (his average Gallup Poll favourability was an enemic 52 percent, less on average than Kennedy, Eisenhower or Clinton ) . But thanks to a Hollywood-honed folksiness and a generally improving economy--one that crashed again during the Bush I years after the deregulated Savings-and-Loan industry ran aground--he gained an overinflated reputation this book does a good job refuting.
Again, from the book:
"His story arc did become more optimistic and peaked at just the right moment, when Americans were tired of the "malaise" of the Jimmy Carter years and wanted someone who promised to make the nation feel good about itself again. But his positive legacy as president today hangs on events that most historians say were to some great measure out of his control: An economic recovery that was inevitable, especially when world oil prices returned to normal levels, and an end to the Cold War that was more driven by internal events in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe than Americans want to acknowledge.
"His 1981 tax cut was followed quickly by tax hikes that you rarely hear about, and Reagan's real lasting achievement on that front was slashing marginal rates for the wealthy - even as rising payroll taxes socked the working class. His promise to shrink government was uttered so many time that many acolytes believe it really happened, but in fact Reagan expanded the federal payroll, added a new cabinet post, and created a huge debt that ultimately tripped up his handpicked successor, George H.W. Bush. What he did shrink was government regulation and oversight - linked to a series of unfortunate events from the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s to the sub-prime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s."
And that brings us up to the present and the end of Reagan-ism and faith in big business to look after our jobs and our health and our life savings. A hard lesson learned only when the man who set all this disaster in motion had long since began to lose his memory from the ravages of Alzheimer's and old age. One can't help wondering what Reagan would have made of his own works, and if a word of caution by his lips might have made a difference, however slight.