On Hearing that Ronald Reagan Had Died
I got the news about Reagan from an email, a technology that wasn't even available when he was president (except to a select group of universities on the edge of the technological cutting edge of the 1980s). That was a measure of how long ago Ronald Reagan was president. He was pre-Internet. When he was president the Cold War still raged. And yet how remarkably vital his presidency still feels. Fifteen years after his presidency ended his administration seems more a part of our present than of our past.
That, it seems to me, says volumes.
Going back through the list of presidents who died in the last half century I can't think of one whose impact was comparable. When Nixon died in the 1990s his presidency seemed as dated as the old clips of the Watergate hearings. Detente no longer mattered. Wage and price controls had become a bad memory even his supporters declined to celebrate. All that was left of his memory was the boil he had left on the body politic, from which we are still suffering.
Lyndon Johnson's death in 1973 came so soon after his presidency that he still seemed very much a vital figure. After all, the war he started was still raging. But no one drew much inspiration from his presidency, not even the Democrats who served in it. They were too busy feeling guilty about Vietnam to pause to celebrate the Great Society, which embodied his party's ideals even if it did not successfully put them into practice. (Note: A reader has chastised me for saying that LBJ started the war in Vietnam. Complicated issue, of course. This did not seem the place to weigh Johnson's role in our involvement in Vietnam, which can be traced, of course, as far back as Truman and perhaps even FDR. I have always thought that JFK more than any president on this list of war presidents made the fateful moves. But at his death there were still only some 11,000 or so troops--"advisors"--there. It was LBJ who turned Vietnam into a real war.)
Harry Truman's death the year before--this was before he had been turned into an American folk hero by David McCullough--barely registered. A captain in World War I, he seemed dated and irrelevant. By the 1970s no one was talking about the Fair Deal. Not even Democrats were harking back to his presidency for inspiration.
Ike's death probably had more of an impact than any of these others if only because his presidency, so long ago, seemed a blurry memory of the good times we once enjoyed and now no longer did. But neither party was eager to embrace his memory by then. The Democrats didn't want to celebrate a figure of Modern Republicanism and the Republican base felt more emotionally connected to the 1964 loser Barry Goldwater than to the double 1950's winner, Dwight Eisenhower.
Herbert Hoover died in 1964. Who could believe the man was still alive?
John Kennedy's death at the hands of an assassin cannot fairly be lumped in with these others.
Which brings me back to Ronald Reagan. Fifteen years after his presidency and still he seems ... a live presence in American life and politics. In part this is because an energetic group of loyalists continues to celebrate his memory, even recommending that his face replace FDR's on the dime. But mostly it reflects the impact he had on the world as it is.
President Bush has said that 9-11 changed our world. But it apparently did not change it as much as might be believed. If it had, Reaganism would seem very much a thing of the past. But it doesn't. For a man who began his career at the dawn of the radio era that is a remarkable testament to his influence.
comments powered by Disqus
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/25/2004
Talk about bizarre ideas! To believe that the Sandinistas "brought democracy to Nicaragua" tuns the truth on its head. You might as well say Castro brought democracy to Cuba, or Maurice Bishop brought democracy to Grenada.
Patricia Yeary Stallard - 6/8/2004
I had a very personal dislike of President Reagan. I was a federal civil servant working for the Department of Defense, helping make the All Volunteer Force work. Many mornings at avery early hour I would be driving through the heart of Appalachia trying to get to a high school on time while he slept snug in his bed with Nancy and Pat Bushanan railed against the "do nothing" civil service. Reagan finished what Nixon started. He divided the working classes along racial lines, adivide that still exists today and is still exploited by his successors. Give me a different "Morning in America."
HNN - 6/8/2004
[From Richard Gasson]
I find your invocation of the Monroe Doctrine in the case of the early Sandinista government of Nicaragua bizarre. Recall that the Sandinistas came into power hoping to have good relations with the United States, and during the time that the U.S. was willing to leave them alone - the first year or so of their tenure in office - they were _not_ in any way slaves of any other power.
Even when the U.S. turned against them, they remained extremely careful not to provoke the United States. They worked to repay the enormous debt the Somoza regime had left them. Even under the intense pressure of the illegally funded CIA effort to overthrow them, they carefully remained neutral.
Your conflating of the Sandinistas with Castro, too, is inaccurate. In 1984, unlike any communist regime, they held what was universally held to be a free and fair election, outside the Reagan administration. And they maintained their constitutionally mandated election schedule. In that election, they lost. When they lost (and listen to this carefully), they STEPPED DOWN and assumed the political position they've held to this day, as the loyal opposition. Is that a communist regime? Is that how Soviet-style communism ever operated?
Now. Having said that, I can't deny that Ortega was, in ways that seem to be pretty common in Central America, relatively corrupt. However, his corruption cannot hold the slightest candle to Somoza, who looted his country. Nor can he compare to any of the other dictators the U.S. supported in Latin America, all of whom ended their careers as, at least, millionaires.
What the Sandinistas brought to Nicaragua was something you should be celebrating: democracy. Check it out; it might be something you could support. "
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/7/2004
I think your legalistic case rests upon the violation of the Boland amendment, which people like Reagan and North were probably not even aware of.
But what about the Monroe Doctrine? No doubt you would condemn that in equally strong terms, and all the actions under it of prior presidents. You cannot gainsay, however, that it worked, as did the Reagan support for democratic change in Central America. Where would the region be today, had Tip O'Neil and his Little Sisters of somewhere, and John Kerry, prevailed? It would be in chains, under Daniel Ortega and the like, ruled by a bevy of latter-day Fidels.
I think what escapes you is the corrupt nature of regimes led by such people as Ortega and Castro. (Ortega liked $285 sunglases.) If your goal, like Reagan's, was truly to uplift the downtrodden and miserable people of this region, you would support the free market, capitalist solutions, and not hold out for the coercive utopians, most of whom know they are merely dictators, and are not so naive as to believe in socialism or communism, as do their boosters in the U.S.
HNN - 6/7/2004
Ronald Reagan was extremely influential, but I would argue that this is true from another perspective than has been presented here.
Reagan, and his administration, was able to do what Nixon wasn't: he was able to break the constitutional separation of powers and get away with it.
He or his administration allowed the illegal and unconstitutional funding of the Contras, the puppet army of terrorists the U.S. purchased to fight the Nicaraguan government from 1981 to 1986 (for those of you a bit unsure of your history). He, or his administration, also created a bizarre transfer of arms to the Islamic Republic of Iran during several of those years. All of this was done either against the express wishes of Congress, or in contravention of U.S. law. (For those of you a bit unsure about how the constitution works, look to the question of who allocates money).
The war we created in Nicaragua killed tens of thousands; their blood is on Ronald Wilson Reagan's hands. Or on the hands of his advisors.
Incidentally, I always find it fascinating that he never took responsibility for the actions of his subordinates.
I will limit myself to this one case because it is the best documented: we know how it worked because of the testimony of its chief facilitator, Oliver North, who proudly bragged of his violation of U.S. law and the constitution, and who now makes his career decrying the actions of those he characterizes as lawless.
Now, let us look to the present. We can see the fingerprints of the Reagan Administration's actions on the current administration's actions: the illegal, extra-constitutional imprisonments, the contempt of the will of the people as expressed by Congress, the certainty of the correctness of executive branch actions regardless of morality or law.
Reagan is not a man to be praised or honored, nor should we be thankful he was our president.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/7/2004
Why not discuss the death of John F. Kennedy with the same group? Or, why not discuss just him and Reagan?
Kennedy and Reagan both inspired large numbers of Americans, but the big difference was that Reagan actually accomplished a few things while he was in the White House besides inspiring people. Kennedy never did anything, except trade American bases in Turkey for the status quo ante in Cuba. Kennedy's vaunted "Test Ban Treaty" was violated from the first day by the U.S.S.R., and set back the U.S. program by two or three years, before we resumed testing on a crash basis in 1962...
So much for argument. As a factual matter, you are seriously in error when you allege that President Lyndon B. Johnson started the Vietnam War. Did you think no one would notice?
Kenneth T. Tellis - 6/6/2004
For those who remember the Reagan legacy, no one should stress on the rights and wrongs of that bye-gone period. They should instead remember that Ronald reagon came from the common people, and was not born with a silver spoon in his his mouth. But this can also be said of Alfred Emmanuel Smith, Governor of New York, who also came from out of the common people.
It takes a very special kind of individual to achieve what men like Ronald Reagan achieved. He was not the kind of man to let things lie, but one to shake things up. He had many faults, but then he was also a very human being, and the world should be thankful that such a person existed and was among us.
- Pittsburgh native David McCullough's next book will focus on generations of Northwest pioneers
- British historian Sheila Lecoeur is on trial for defamation
- Jim Downs laments that Americans still aren’t being taught LGBT history
- Historian Jeremy Kuzmarov calls on Obama to pardon Ethel Rosenberg
- Garry Wills says there’s one human test we can use to decide who’s the better candidate: Trump or Clinton