Rest assured that the radical reworking of history that America witnessed in the hours after Ronald Reagan died Saturday at age 93 will be temporary. While the over-the-top media coverage and official commentary regarding the 40th President’s passing has made him out to be such a noble figure that otherwise rational people have been heard to suggest that Reagan was the greatest president of the twentieth century, it will not take long for a balancing to begin. In short order, the assessments of Reagan the man, and of his tenure in the Oval Office, will be tempered.
Then, conservatives and liberals will be free to consider ths ideologically-driven–and misguided–President’s record with eyes wide open.
For now, however, realism is in short supply–much to the detriment of not just of the historical record but of Reagan’s memory.
All of a sudden, the man who redirected tens of billions of dollars away from domestic needs to build up the largest nuclear arsenel on the planet, ran up record deficits, saw members of his Administration investigated and indicted at a staggering rate and, himself, came close to being impeached for allowing aides to create a shadow government that peddled weapons to sworn enemies of the United States and used the profits to fund illegal wars in Central America was remade as a statesman who restored dignity and direction to his country.
While no one should begrudge Reagan’s admirers this opportunity to replay those “morning in America” commercials that were deployed with such success during the last of their man’s four runs for the presidency, it is a bit embarrassing to watch pundits and pols who know better embracing the spin.
The problem with all this hero worship is that the spin underestimates and mischaracterizes Reagan. It reduces a complex and controversial man to a blurry icon with few of the rough edges that made him one of the most remarkable political figures of his time.
That he was remarkable does not mean that he was right. Most of what Reagan did during two terms as governor of California and two terms as president can most charitably be described as “misguided.” Aside from his support for abortion rights during his governorship, and his opposition to anti-gay initiatives in California during the late 1970s, Reagan displayed an amazing ability to place himself on the wrong side of the issues–and of history.
Yet, there is something that liberals can–and should–learn from Reagan.
Ronald Reagan was a master politician who understood how to package rightwing ideas in appealing enough forms to get himself elected and, sometimes, to implement his programs. Even when Americans did not like the ideas Reagan was peddling–as in 1984, when polls showed Democrat Walter Mondale’s ideas were significantly more popular–they liked Reagan. Throughout his career, Reagan benefitted from the penchant of Americans to embrace politicians who seem to be at ease with their ideology. This sense that true believers are genuine creates confidence in citizens, lending itself to lines like, “Even if you disagree with him, you know where he stands.” And such lines translate on election day into votes that frequently cross ideological and partisan lines.