04 February 2011

The Reagan Centennial Weekend

Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday is this Sunday, February 6, and I'm surprised to hear so little hype about it. Some people will blame the relative quiet on the mean old liberal media's refusal to recognize Reagan's greatness, but it seems to me that enthusiasm for the Gipper has died down among Republicans themselves. It peaked a few years ago, when some groups were pushing a plan to have monuments to Reagan dedicated in every state of the Union, and some people talked of putting his face on the dime in place of FDR's. More recently, by comparison, someone as presumably Reaganite as Sarah Palin reportedly miffed the old man's remaining fans by describing him as an actor, which is only truth. More substantially, it may be that Tea Partiers, among others, have picked up on growing criticism of Reagan among the paleocons at The American Conservative and elsewhere, particularly on the subject of deficits. As President, Reagan is alleged to have betrayed conservative principles in many ways, and one charge that seems to stick is that he was one of the country's most fiscally irresponsible leaders. While it remains true that he had to deal with or defer to a Democrat-dominated Congress for almost the entirety of his tenure (Republicans controlled the Senate briefly), Reagan still gets a good share of blame in retrospect for borrowing to pay for expanded government while reducing taxes instead of ruthlessly cutting budgets or vetoing them if necessary. Meanwhile, whether you believe that Reagan "won" the Cold War or not, the evidence appears to show that he was much less of a stereotypical cold warrior than many people feared he would be. While his stubborn insistence on developing missile defense cost him a major nuke-reduction agreement with Gorbachev, the fact that such a reputedly rabid anti-Commie as Reagan was willing to propose such a drastic deal to the Soviets remains remarkable. In any event, aside from debacles like the Lebanon deployment and offenses like the "liberation" of Grenada, Reagan as a foreign-policy President looks good compared to the last Republican we had in the White House. It may be that the "responsibilities of office" that tend to blur distinctions between Republican and Democratic foreign policy made Reagan a more reasonable diplomat -- especially once he had an even more reasonable counterpart on the Soviet side. Those responsibilities of office have a funny effect sometimes, often making Republicans look more responsible in retrospect while making Democrats look cynical, deceptive or unprincipled while in office. Whatever the reason, the last two Democratic Presidents have had little but good to say about Reagan, and that may be why Republicans seem less celebratory as the centennial approaches.

Cal Thomas is a keeper of the flame for Reagan, but his commemorative column betrays a greater admiration for an idealized, rhetorical Ronnie than for the actual decider of his time. Thomas's Reagan is primarily a moral leader in the sense that he preached values the columnist values. Reagan remains a great man in Thomas's eyes, on the evidence of this column, primarily for what he said and is presumed to have believed rather than for anything he actually accomplished as President. For Thomas, the preaching is the accomplishment. Thomas himself is one of today's top print-preachers of self-reliance and Little-Engine-That-Couldism. Disgusted by the thought of the people's dependence upon government (however democratic and self-made) in the modern world, he latches onto every aphorism affirming individual capability and self-sufficiency, hoping that people will prefer to do it themselves or go it alone, regardless of whether they succeed or not, and not compel him to subsidize their lazy lives with his tax dollars. Such are the sentiments of a spokesman for the "Christian Right," and such, Thomas proposes, were the values of Ronald Reagan. Reagan's true beliefs, or at least his practices, probably differed. His centennial would be a good time for us to get closer to the truth, to determine whether Reagan's birthday is worth celebrating in the future.

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