Monday, June 07, 2004
So the President is dead.
That is who he will always be for me. I remember the Carter Presidency - my first vivid political memory is of Sadat's visit to Jerusalem - and vaguely President Ford, but neither of them will ever be The President in my mind.
This isn't a matter of affinity. During his Presidency, it would never have occurred to me to be a Reagan supporter - and not because I was an apolitical kid; I was obsessed with politics. But I was raised by a mother who was and is a Democrat, and the universe of conceivable political identities was for me exclusively Democratic. I liked Gary Hart in 1984, Al Gore in 1988, and Bob Kerrey in 1992. My father used to say every four years that he was still voting for Scoop Jackson, and I guess I was, too. I didn't start to think, "maybe I'm a Republican" until I'd experienced the early years of the Clinton Presidency, the early years of the Giuliani mayoralty, got married, tried to make it in the working world, etc.
Late in the day, I suppose I'm something of a Reagan Republican (all Republicans are, now), but not wholly so. I am, and will always be, an Eastern-style Republican, even if I am a conservative one. I will always be more inclined toward a Disraeli-style "one nation" conservatism than a hard-core Reaganaut would. I will always admire those who forged the girders that bind our nation - whether Madison's Constitution, or Hamilton's Treasury, or Clay's "American system" of internal improvements - more than a small-government Coolidge Republican would. While in retrospect I admire many aspects of Reagan's domestic program that I did not appreciate as a teenager, those that are most significant had many fathers. Reagan made welfare reform possible, but Governors like Tommy Thompson actually made it happen, and Newt Gingrinch made it national. The 1986 tax reform is one of the great, largely unsung triumphs of economic legislation, and was crucial to the boom of the 1990s, but Senators like Bob Packwood and Bill Bradley were instrumental in crafting that law. What I remember most fondly about Reagan at the time was his staunch support for the friends of liberty in the belly of the beast - for the captive nations of Eastern Europe and for the free peoples of Western Europe. And it's what I still cherish most about his Presidency.
Did Reagan win the Cold War? I'd give him second or third prize. First prize must go to Harry Truman. Had Roosevelt stuck with Henry Wallace in 1944 - as much of the Democratic Party and his wife wanted him to - the post-war world would have looked very different. Communists came close to taking power in liberated France and Italy as it was; with a blithe spirit like Wallace in the White House, I would guess their odds of triumph would have been far greater. It's inconceivable to me that Wallace would have moved to counter the Soviets as Truman did. And if the red star had risen over Paris, I have no doubt that many Americans would have asked, was it for this that our boys died on the beaches of Normandy - to make the world safe for Soviet Communism? The Republican reaction, when it came, would not have marched under the banner of the internationalist Thomas Dewey but the isolationist Taft, who would have withdrawn from hopeless Europe and focused on defending the Americas. Had Truman not been selected as Roosevelt's VP, it's entirely conceivable that America would not have fought the Cold War. And if we had not fought it, it goes without saying we would not have won it.
Second prize must go to Reagan or to Gorbachev, and the only question is how much Reagan's election influenced the Politburo to take a wild chance on a guy like Gorbachev. But regardless of the answer to that question, no one should doubt that the reason the Soviet Union fell was not some kind of historical inevitability nor even the inevitable consequence of Gorbachev's reforms. People who remember Berlin in 1989, or Vilnius in 1991, when tyranny fell with little or no bloodshed, should remember as well Beijing in 1989, Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968, and Grozny in 1995. Gorbachev lacked the will to preserve Communist rule through mass murder, but had he mustered the will (as Andropov might have, for instance), we do not know that the Soviet Union might have lasted another generation, whatever the West had done. The only reason to deny Gorbachev the silver medal for ending the Cold War, then, would be the argument that Reagan's election, and particularly his Strategic Defense Initiative, convinced the Politburo that they needed to try something desperate. They tried Gorbachev, and the rest is history.
How will the man be remembered? I think that today, his place in history is roughly comparable to Woodrow Wilson's. I know that the comparison will infuriate most conservatives, but to liberals Wilson was one of the great Presidents of American history, both in terms of his domestic program (Progressive labor legislation, establishment of the income tax, anti-trust, centralization of power in the national government) and his foreign policy (anti-imperialist and emphasizing not only internationational law but the development of a kind of proto-world government: 14 points, League of Nations, etc). He certainly shaped both the domestic and international order in a profound way. If he is not worshipped the way FDR and JFK are, well, that has more to do with his personal qualities than with his policies. Reagan was a great personality as well as an important President; had Goldwater been elected President in 1980, he would be a similar lodestar for conservative Republicans, but he would not be remembered as fondly by the nation. And Democratic Presidents and would-be Presidents - Carter, Clinton, Bill Bradley - have looked to Wilson as an inspiration. That's my point about comparing Wilson and Reagan: to a largely similar degree but in largely opposite directions, they changed the country, and the world. I would put each in the high second rank of Presidential significance, below Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, in the same league as Jackson, Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman.
Will he ever become a "consensus" President, a symbol of the nation, beloved (mostly) by all? If you set the bar high enough, no American clears it. Only Washington has virtually no detractors; Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR - all of these were not only hated by many in their day but are still reviled by some. But if we set the bar a little lower, I think the answer will be yes: Reagan will, one day, be a "consensus" President. As with FDR, many of the causes that he championed are already part of the consensus, and he will increasingly be identified with these. The mistakes, scandals and failures of his tenure will properly be forgotten as the decades pass.
I admit, he has seemed gone for a long time now. That is the way with Alzheimers. We have not heard from him in a decade; we have not tended him, as his devoted wife Nancy has. He has been gone from us long enough that these memorials have the feel of an anniversary commemoration of his death, rather than a funeral. But that is fitting not only because of his long goodbye to us, so much time dying, but because we have travelled so far since he ceased to head our host. It is so long since the days when the Soviet threat loomed large abroad and stagflation ravaged at home, so long since America was told that we should reconcile ourselves to inevitable decline, that we do not really remember what it was like. Even after the atrocities and setbacks of the past few years, we are still grown so wealthy and so confident that our wisest warn of hubris, justly or no. President Reagan lived through a great arc of his country's history, and led it to the uplands where we dwelt for many years. Another arc, through territory yet unknown, stretches before us. May we pass through future valleys as safely and triumphantly as those we traversed on his watch.