On Not Canonizing the Gipper

Efforts to elevate Ronald Reagan’s reputation to Rooseveltian heights continue. Time to stand athwart historians and yell “Stop!”

When I think of Ronald Reagan, I am reminded of a car salesman named Mo who once put me in a used Nissan. The car I wanted had a sticker price that seemed a little steep. Seeking to negotiate, I made an offer. Mo—who I should mention was irrepressibly pleasant and impossible to dislike—proved unwilling to budge at all. This surprised me, and I tried to haggle, but to no avail. I exercised my only leverage by thanking him for his time and leaving the dealership. We continued this dance by phone and in person for several days, with Mo sticking hard to his terms while coaxing me to buy. I confess that he began to get in my head. Who was this master negotiator? How did he keep moving me from my position while maintaining his own? He took a nominal amount off the sticker to cushion my ego and threw in some floor mats, but when I bought the car it was more or less on Mo’s terms. I drove it off the lot utterly bested.

Reagan: The Life

by H.W. Brands
Doubleday, 816 pp.

I came to realize that Mo was not in fact a king among dealmakers. He simply would not lower his price. Mo confounded me by having a simple goal and holding to it, in the process forcing me to negotiate against myself. I can imagine how Mikhail Gorbachev must have felt when he faced Reagan at Reykjavik in 1986. The president was determined to preserve his Strategic Defense Initiative, the planned antimissile shield that could theoretically stop an incoming Soviet weapon. No matter how many times Gorbachev pressed, Reagan would not relent. It did not matter that granting Gorbachev’s request—limiting SDI to the laboratory setting for ten years—meant conceding nothing; in no conceivable universe would SDI be ready for active testing within that time frame. Reagan’s firmness prevented a deal at Reykjavik, and the parties walked away embittered. But sure enough, they held another summit the following year. And Reagan eventually got his way.

Reagan’s goals as president were as simple as Mo’s, and like Mo he stuck to them relentlessly. According to H. W. Brands, the author of Reagan: The Life, Reagan’s goals were “to shrink government at home and defeat communism abroad.” He left more detailed matters—that is to say, all detailed matters—to subordinates, to the point where he himself could seem a little simple. (Reagan shocked Paul Volcker at their initial meeting by asking the chairman to explain the purpose of the Federal Reserve.) And yet simplicity can be a form of genius. Reagan viewed public affairs through a lens of right and wrong and refused to let details obstruct his clear-eyed view. In Brands’s words, “Communists and their sympathizers were bad, anti-communists and their supporters were good.” In this way the United States found itself in bed with Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet, and apartheid South Africa. Who would imagine that such a basic, unimaginative thinker could win the Cold War?

American presidents are remembered for two, or at most three, big things. While historians traffic in nuance, the public does not, constructing instead a narrative around a president’s most significant acts, accomplishments, failures, and omissions. Lincoln freed the slaves and saved the union. Grant’s administration oozed corruption. Hoover coddled the rich and ran the country into depression. Johnson passed the Great Society and lost Vietnam. Barack Obama—I predict history will say—enacted universal health insurance and ended the Iraq War. This is not to imply that the day-to-day activities of a president do not matter; obviously they shape national and often international events. But if Reagan boiled things down to their simplest terms, so do we.

Ronald Reagan stands to benefit more than most presidents from this reductive process of historical memory. Big picture, he looks impressive. A man of unblemished optimism and an enduring hero to generations of Republicans, he stood tough and presided over the fall of the Soviet Union. And yet even as we learn more about Reagan, we increasingly overlook troubling details in favor of grand themes. Eleven years after his death, archives are opening, associates are speaking up, the ramifications of his policies are coming into perspective, and judgments are being reached. Brands’s biography—the first since Reagan’s death—is an important part of this process, since the author is a historian at the University of Texas whose judgments are well informed and credible. Brands’s conclusion is this: Reagan stands alongside Franklin Roosevelt as one of the two major presidents of the twentieth century. Roosevelt oriented the country to the left and defeated fascism. Reagan reoriented the country to the right and defeated communism.

There are many ways to respond to this claim. The first is to note that the extent to which Reagan defeated communism is a matter of lively debate. He had the good fortune to be president at a propitious moment. Decades of economic retardation had finally caught up with the Soviet Union. Eastern Europeans, led by Lech Walesa in Poland, had begun to resist Soviet oppression. And the USSR had buried three crusty old premiers in quick succession and selected an ambitious young reformer in the person of Gorbachev. He and not Reagan deserves credit for ending the Cold War, to the extent that one person must be feted. Yet Reagan’s opponents must concede that the president tested Gorbachev while giving him space to enact precarious reforms. We cannot know what Gorbachev would have done without Reagan pushing him, but it is a safe bet that the answer is: “Less.” Reagan broke with his party by negotiating with Gorbachev on the question of nuclear arms reduction, and by trying to change rather than contain the Soviet Union.

It is important to note that Brands’s conclusion about Reagan is not a partisan one. While pairing Reagan with Roosevelt, he acknowledges that both remain highly controversial presidents, and he does not take sides on the merits of their policies. Brands is correct that both Reagan and Roosevelt succeeded in pushing their respective agendas, which amounts to success of a kind. Reagan and Roosevelt also had comparable influence in pulling the national conversation hard to one side, although here again there is an asterisk. In the twenty-six years since Reagan left office, Democrats have held the presidency for fourteen years—not exactly a windfall for the right. Yet today’s Democratic Party is far more centrist, and the Republican Party is far more right-wing, than in the 1960s. This is partly a result of the rightward pressure that Reagan exerted over national politics.

With all this said, the important point is this: it is not possible to evaluate a president without examining the substance of his policies. And substantively, Reagan does not warrant mention in the same breath as Roosevelt. Not by miles. Domestically, Roosevelt saved the nation from an existential threat (the Great Depression), while Reagan merely steered it out of a funk (the 1970s). Roosevelt enacted structural reforms to protect the most vulnerable members of society, from the unemployed to the infirm to the elderly. Reagan systematically set about dismantling those reforms and deregulating the economy, leaving everyone to fend for themselves. Reagan also forged the unholy alliance between the Republican Party and the evangelical right: a marriage that continues to infect the United States with intolerance and anti-science thinking. The government-is-the-enemy mind-set that pervades the right today comes to us from Barry Goldwater via Ronald Reagan. As our roads, bridges, and schools fall apart around us, we have them to thank.

Brands is far more interested in big-picture themes about the Reagan presidency than its nuts and bolts. This seems a strange thing to say about a biographer, who necessarily records all events that pass before his camera. But while Brands is impressively detailed in recounting Reagan’s summitry with Gorbachev and his aggressive tax cutting, he is perfunctory when discussing Reagan’s role in, say, the environmental movement and non-Soviet foreign policy. In this way Brands’s Reagan reflects what we already know rather than challenging us to think about Reagan’s legacy afresh.

Disappointingly, Brands devotes merely six pages to Reagan’s impact on the federal judiciary, and most of these deal with his nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. We read in a few terse sentences that Reagan nominated the Court’s first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, and also nominated Antonin Scalia and elevated William Rehnquist to the office of chief justice. Brands does not mention that Rehnquist was by far the most conservative member of the Court at the time, or that naming him chief was one of the most controversial and consequential acts of Reagan’s presidency. Nor does Brands explore Reagan’s politicization of the judiciary generally: the significance of his nomination of the shrilly partisan Scalia; the drive to make the federal appellate courts a forum for political warfare; Attorney General Edwin Meese’s efforts to create a young army of pedigreed attorneys who would eventually sit on the bench or fight to take back the academy. The current chief justice, John Roberts, was one of them.

Brands is much more impressive in his description of the Reagan presidency during the early fight against HIV and AIDS. Brands explains how Reagan pandered to the religious right and thus gave birth to one of the most noxious streams in contemporary Republican politics. If Rick Santorum’s dismal showing in the 2012 primaries is any indication, the evangelical right’s heyday has come and gone. But in the 1980s, Reagan harnessed the political power of that movement, pointedly declining to condone the “alternative lifestyle” of the gay community. He said almost nothing about the growing AIDS epidemic during his first term, funding AIDS research with anemic budgetary appropriations and no public support. When Reagan finally addressed the AIDS crisis in 1987, he appallingly called for mandatory testing for federal prisoners and listed AIDS as a contagious disease that could prevent the admission of a noncitizen to the United States.

Even returning to Reagan’s major achievements, the myths outpace the facts. He is lionized by the right today as the avatar of small government, but Reagan was, of course, the first president to preach this sermon while enacting the policies of big-government conservatism. He cut taxes and regulations, and shrank entitlement spending. But his defense spending accelerated at such a rate as to create enormous budget deficits of the type that Tea Party conservatives now claim to deplore. Reagan’s deficits caused the national debt to rise from $900 billion in 1981 to over $2.5 trillion in 1988. He consistently spent more than he had, and it took George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton years to repair the damage and bring the country back into the black. Reagan revealed that modern conservatism isn’t so much about small government as about low taxes at any cost.

Reagan is at its best when Brands explores one of Reagan’s undeniable assets: his ability to communicate with the American people. His arsenal of stories and jokes matched Lincoln’s. Brands describes Reagan’s “wonderful voice, which, if anything, grew more seductive with the throatiness of age.” His trademark sunny disposition helped, of course. Brands observes that again and again Reagan told Americans what they wanted to hear: that they were a unique and extraordinary people, and that their country was a force for good in all things. But here Brands’s criticisms are more pointed, and they are on the money: “His message was an easy sell. He asked next to nothing of the people, neither the soaring sacrifice of John Kennedy’s inaugural nor the quotidian adjustments sought by Carter.” Reagan’s message was bound up in his personality. Brands denies that Reagan was merely an actor reading his lines, as some have claimed; his strong convictions animated his rhetoric and informed his broad policy goals. But Reagan was nevertheless a performer: “He was not,” Brands writes, “a warm person, but he seemed to be, which in politics is more important.”

Brands similarly pulls no punches when it comes to the great scandal of the Reagan presidency: the Iran/Contra affair. Congress had refused to appropriate funds for the right-wing Contras fighting to take Nicaragua from its leftist government. Since anticommunists were good, Reagan vigorously supported the Contras. In defiance of Congress, and in secret, his administration sold missiles to the government of Iran in return for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. The administration then used the excess proceeds of the arms sales to support the Contras in Nicaragua. Reagan appears genuinely not to have known about the Contra connection. But he knew full well about the trading of arms for hostages, and falsely told the American people that he had not, in fact, made such trades. Reagan’s ignorance of Oliver North’s shenanigans when it came to the Contras was a product of his own terrible management style. Presiding over a dysfunctional cabinet and uninterested in the details of policy, he set goals that his staff members tried to meet.

Conservatives have a line about standing “athwart” history and yelling stop. It seems ironic to do precisely this when it comes to the canonization of Ronald Reagan. He was not a great president. And the more the conventional wisdom holds otherwise, the more forcefully this must be said. Reagan’s contribution to the end of the Cold War is without question his major achievement, and it was no small feat. Fifty years from now, nothing else about his presidency may matter. But Reagan was also the author of many of our current predicaments as a nation and a society. His anti-government worldview created the no-tax-raised-ever mentality of today’s right. Our store of compassion for the less fortunate dwindled and withered under his smiling influence. Our willingness to undertake cynical and blatantly illegal acts abroad reached its crescendo with Reagan’s machinations in El Salvador and Grenada. We are a more polarized country because of the way Reagan brought right-wing politics into the mainstream. “Trust but verify,” Reagan endlessly said to Gorbachev. Historians must do the same.

Michael O’Donnell

Michael O’Donnell is a writer and attorney who is a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly. His writing also appears in the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Nation.