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Ronald Reagan Centennial

The Reagan Centennial: The Gipper Reconsidered

3 years ago
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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.

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