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Ronald Reagan Centennial

The Reagan Centennial: The Gipper Reconsidered

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As an anti-Vietnam war left-wing college student at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s, my world view was all primary colors (mostly red) with no shading.

That was why I was so baffled by my non-ideological reaction to Ronald Reagan. Covering the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami Beach for my college paper ("Special to the Michigan Daily"), I sat mesmerized as the first-term California governor made a public pitch to the North Carolina delegation in a last-ditch effort to woo the South away from Richard Nixon. Even though I disagreed with everything Reagan was saying about fighting Communism and the evils of big government, I could not resist rooting for him.

Working in the Carter administration a decade later, every time I passed a television set showing Reagan on the screen I felt compelled to listen, even if he was portraying the return of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians as the equivalent of Neville Chamberlain at Munich. (My point is not to dust off the clichés about the Gipper as the Great Communicator; since Reagan, by the way, no president has boasted a printable nickname).

Reagan was compelling for reasons that transcended the catch in his throat, his other cinematic gestures and his Hollywood sentimentality. What Reagan conveyed -- especially when talking about Communism -- was a moral earnestness that no other modern politician could match. This was not George W. Bush transforming the battle against al-Qaeda into a crusade against Saddam Hussein, or Barack Obama approaching the presidency as a balance-both-sides-of-the-equation math problem.

With a quarter century of hindsight -- and these are embarrassing words to type -- most foreign policy liberals (me included) were far too tolerant of the Soviet Union's iron-fisted domination of Eastern Europe. Fear of America doing anything provocative to upset the nuclear balance of power led to a cynical and passive acceptance of Russia's entitlement to a sphere of influence. Lamenting the fate of the Captive Nations and decrying the moral illegitimacy of the Soviet system was scorned by 1980s liberals as unsophisticated -- a bellicose throwback to the reflexive anti-Communism that led to McCarthyism.

That was, of course, not Ronald Reagan's style. Lines like "the Evil Empire" and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" shimmer in history while the State Department bluenoses who wanted to tone down Reagan's language have been mercifully forgotten. Somehow if Reagan were president today, I suspect that he would have been less tolerant and less diplomatic in greeting President Hu Jintao of China at a time when the 2010 Nobel laureate, Liu Xiaobo, is condemned to a Chinese prison.

It is important not to get too gooey with Reagan centennial nostalgia. Neither Reagan's words nor the Star Wars missile defense system brought down the Soviet Union, despite the hyperbolic efforts of conservatives to claim an ironclad causal connection. These claims to American omnipotence are as exaggerated as the notion that the Democrats lost China in the 1940s. What Reagan did do (and this is where presidential greatness enters the conversation) was both to give eloquent voice to the Eastern European aspirations for freedom while, at the same time, recognizing the radical implications of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.

While liberals should feel retrospective remorse over their glib putdowns of Reagan's anti-Communism, they simultaneously are entitled to chortle over the way that his tax-cut record has been airbrushed by 21st century conservatives. Even though Reagan persuaded a Democratic Congress to approve his massive 1981 rate reductions, the Gipper reversed field in 1982 to staunch the deficit and agreed to a tax increase (equal to about one-third of the original cuts). That single act of tax realism would have prompted today's tea party movement to denounce Reagan as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and to threaten to find a real conservative to challenge him in the GOP primaries.

That was nothing compared to the tax-code apostasy of Reagan's second term. He championed, and in 1986 signed into law, a sweeping bipartisan tax reform bill that (warning: be sure you are sitting down before reading further) raised capital gains taxes. In one of the great progressive reforms of the last half century, Reagan eliminated tax loopholes and special preferences like capital gains in exchange for lowering individual tax brackets. At the core of Reagan's tax reform triumph was the liberal principle that unearned income (stock market swag) should be treated the same ways as an autoworker's wages.

The Reagan reforms were evanescent -- undermined by Republicans and Democrats alike in thrall to wealthy investors and tax lobbyists. As president, Bill Clinton quickly grasped that it was infinitely easier to get Congress to approve a tax preference for job creation or ethanol production than to create a new spending program. The inevitable result (as Obama flicked at in his State of the Union) was a tax code as cluttered with special-interest provisions as it was when Reagan took the oath of office.

I want to resist Reagan hagiography since there were major elements of his presidency that are more worthy of Mount Ridicule than Mount Rushmore. Some were symbolic -- his heavy-handed decision to kick off his 1980 campaign with a speech in Philadelphia, Miss., the site of notorious civil-rights murders, and the ill-considered 1985 wreath-laying at a German military ceremony that contained the graves of SS storm troopers. Others were sadly substantive -- the ill-considered intervention in Lebanon (followed by the abject retreat after the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing) and the rogue mission gone awry that became known the Iran-contra affair.

More than 40 years after I first saw Ronald Reagan at the Miami Beach convention, my political views are now so nuanced that they are mostly shades of gray with only a few daubs of bright color. There are many explanations why I now recoil at the false certainty, off-the-cuff judgments of major political figures. But a significant reason is my rueful acknowledgment that I was too harsh on the presidency of a Hollywood actor turned GE pitchman who was born a full century ago.

Full Reagan Centennial Coverage


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182 Comments

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SANDY RULES

Has everyone forgotten that Reagan raised taxes 11 times and doubled the deficit?? How quickly we forget!!

February 06 2011 at 8:15 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
vendelavee

This Conservative fantasy that Reagan was a great President is a joke! It's already agreed he was "out of it" during his second term with Altzheimers. And his criminal aides ran wild breaking the law selling arms to Iran during this time. They all were later PARDONED by George Bush Sr. so they could avoid jail sentences. His tax cut policies of Supply Side "trickle down" economics has been have been disavowed for 20 years now by David Stockman, the Budget Director Reagan assigned to write them, stating they never worked and ruined the economy. George Bush Sr even called it "voodoo economics." And the Savings And Loans Bank BILLION DOLLAR TAXPAYER BAILOUT was a direct result of his Administrations "hands off" approach to oversight and regulation of that industry. And history repeated itself with the Wall Street collapse in 2008 when George Bush did the exact same thing. And the deficit TRIPLED during his 8 years while all the time blasting wasteful spending. The only thing Reagan excelled at, since he was an actor, was giving high hopes, inspiring, patriotic speeches just like in the movies. He was no intellectual giant either, admitting to an interviewer in the 1950's that he got mostly "C's" in school. And this myth that he brought down the Soviet Union because of increased Defense Spending is rediculous. Hey we out spent the Viet Cong too and they didn't collapse. We're outspending Al Quida and The Taliban and after 10 years they haven't collapsed either. Reagan was NO WHERE NEAR a great President.

February 03 2011 at 11:15 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
popskiq

Reagan probably never met a communist in his life. His 'knowledge' was gained the same way everyone else's was - from the movies and the media. The 'horrors' inflicted on freedom-loving people by the 'Reds', weren't all that much different in either scale or intensity from the work the US did in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala or Vietnam. The 'trimming' may have been different but the political effect was the same.

February 01 2011 at 3:43 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to popskiq's comment
wrytwingr

You sound like the young, foolish version of Shapiro that he himself describes in the beginning of this article. In the world in which we live, your naivete is not refreshing, but rather alarming. Please educate yourself re. communism and the millions tortured and killed in its advancement/propping up. Capitalism and democracy aren't automatically good, but they enable people to make the choice to do/be good. Communism obliterates that choice, providing only evil and misery.

February 02 2011 at 10:35 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

"I didbn't leave the Democratic party, the Democratic party left me". - Ronald Reagan

February 01 2011 at 11:16 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
bthered

The Reagan years were a night mare for the working class...It was the begining of the end of the Middle Class.

February 01 2011 at 11:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jkaimal

I have seen reagan come and go. he had no moral compass at all. He was reactionary to the core. He had no trouble firing stricking air trafic controllers. He started the economic spiral down of America.He convinced working class to vote againt their basic economic interest. He deregulated wall street which will continue to make America a declining economy. He started the beginning fascism which progressed slowly. You have not seen the end of effects of this demagogues rein.

February 01 2011 at 9:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
candicelapere

You mean to tell me that after years of the Republican party claiming that Ronald Reagan was just about the best thing since the white bread that they have now, yet again, changed their minds since the last run for the presidency in which Barack Obama won? The story and their heroes seem to change as every time the camera is on.

By the way people: John F Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy stated this in the 1960s. And, if you read any books on the subject, people might be better informed. President Kennedy ended the cold war. Not Ronald Reagan. While he seemed to be a nice man, and he was dedicated to his family (no question about that whatsoever); He was an ACTOR--just like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

February 01 2011 at 5:35 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to candicelapere's comment
donaugust38

You have absolutely no idea what you're talking about! Kennedy did NOT end the Cold War. Not only didn't he end that war, he started the Vietnam War! LBJ escalated it by lying about the Gulf of Tonkin! Kennedy had ONE victory, the Cuban missle crisis, but he totally blew the Bay of Pigs invasion! Reagan was, by far, a much better president than Kennedy was and the current occupant of the White House doesn't even deserve to walk in the same places that Reagan walked!

February 06 2011 at 5:54 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
mahrmach

You just can't quite give full credit to a great man. The soviets are gone today because of Reagan and not because of the kind heart of a communist? Reagan was without argument a great man with a keen mind and a good heart. Something we all could use more of today. If only we all could learn more from his memory.

February 01 2011 at 5:20 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Mostberg

Other than being almost totally wrong in his giving Reagan only very limited influence in bringing down the Soviet Union, it is not a bad article. It sure beats what is coming out from his angry son - Ron, Jr. He was a rebellious teenager and still talks like one. Michael Reagan, the adopted son, much better represents proper honor and respect for a father and a great President. Were it not for Reagan we would likely still be in the middle of a cold war, or worse. And the freed countries would still be under the thumb of the likes of Putin.

February 01 2011 at 12:24 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
rickets99

"While liberals should feel retrospective remorse over their glib putdowns of Reagan's anti-Communism..." Hey, nobody liked the Communists. Everyone was afraid of the nuclear arms race which led to the unbelievably horrific concept of mutually assured destruction--something is still among the worst threats to our continued survival. However, to treat Reagan as if he had anything to do with actually "leading" this country is just false. He was an actor who was good at reading a teleprompter--others wrote his speeches. His son recently said that Reagan even needed cue cards to get through routine telephone conversations. Reagan wasn't "really" president--he just played one on TV, so to speak.

January 31 2011 at 10:39 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

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