Reassessing (and Romanticizing) Ronald Reagan

Reagan didn't take himself too seriously. That was the problem sometimes.


In the movie Chinatown, the sinister Noah Cross explains, “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”   Perhaps that is why as the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan is observed on February 6,   Reagan is being remembered, reassessed and romanticized.   Conservatives get misty-eyed reminiscing over the good old days when “Dutch” Reagan was large and in charge.  Liberals recall him with a bit less sentiment, but like attending the funeral for someone you didn’t like, are reserving their criticism for another time.

Even if you couldn’t stand the guy (and more often than not I couldn’t) , you had to hand it to him for his uncanny ability to turn a phrase, interject humor and show the kind of strength so many others have tried to emulate and failed dismally to pull off. An example was Reagan singing the praises of Dr. Martin Luther King:

Twenty four years ago, when President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, he praised the civil rights leader for “awakening something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be color-blind.” In a 1986 message to the Congress of Racial Equality marking the observance of the holiday, Reagan was even more effusive in his praise, describing King as a “truly prophetic voice that reached out over the chasms of hostility, prejudice, ignorance and fear to touch the conscience of America.”

But even what Reagan gave gracefully with one hand he took back grudgingly with the other:

Yet, throughout congressional consideration of the legislation, President Reagan opposed the idea of a national holiday for King. Indeed, Reagan associated himself with the views of North Carolina’s Sen. Jesse Helms, the legislation’s most obdurate congressional opponent. During the Senate debate, Helms called for the opening of the FBI files on King, which he claimed would show that King was a communist or at least a communist sympathizer. When asked in an October 1983 news conference about Helms’ allegations, Reagan responded, “We will know in about 35 years, won’t we?” (referring to the time for the opening of the FBI files).

Reagan went on to say, “I don’t fault Sen. Helms’ sincerity with regard to wanting the records opened up. I think that he is motivated by a feeling that if we are going to have a national holiday named for any American, when it’s only been named for one American in all our history up until this time, that he feels we should know everything there is to know about an individual.”

That was Reagan all over: capable of soaring and inspirational rhetoric, yet far more coldly calculating than advertised.

I don’t get how Reagan has been raised to near-deity standards in some conservative quarters. However, if you look at his Republican presidential predecessors (Ford, Nixon, Eisenhower) and successors (Bush and Bush Jr.), he does stand pretty tall in comparison to those guys.

If anything Reagan came along after the maddening mediocrity of back-to-back Chief Executives (Ford and Carter) and even if all his deeds matched up with the high-minded rhetoric, Reagan made a lot of Americans feel good about themselves and the country. He was probably not just the Great Communicator, but the Great Cheerleader as well as he seemed to personify both confidence and a bit of old school swagger as well.

Reagan’s kindly uncle veneer masked a lot of ugly policies and deeds by his Administration which was one of the most corrupt Washington has ever seen. Reagan may not have had a bigoted bone in his body. He simply didn’t seem to give race much thought His inept handling of the Bob Jones University case was one example of The Gipper fueling the suspicion he was a nice old man who wasn’t interested in messy details.

No president can be all things to all people and Reagan is certainly no exception. I wouldn’t go so far as to chisel his face on Mt. Rushmore as some of his admirers suggested with complete sincerity, but I wouldn’t say Reagan was evil, vindictive, dumb or senile as some of his detractors have.

The sunny optimism of Reagan has been replaced by the doom-and-gloom conservatism of today where everything is going wrong, getting worse and sucking hard.  The ideological inflexibility of the Tea Party would not have much patience with Reagan’s “aw gee whiz and shucks” affability,   preferring the “eat glass and pound sand” vitriol of a Palin, Limbaugh and Beck.

When I assess the Reagan Presidency he’s no hero to me, but neither was he totally a villain.  My expectations of President Reagan was I expected nothing from him and he delivered on it.   Reagan did his share of dirt, but  his approach was to slip the knife in with a smile.   Nixon was a thug who breaks into your house at night and strangles puppies while you sleep.  Bush41 was a wimp and his blundering idiot son a total screw-up of everything he touched.

The praises of Ronald Reagan will be sung this weekend and his legacy pondered.   Reagan’s most ardent supporters consider him one of the nation’s greatest presidents, but that’s in part because many of those who believe he damned near walked on water conveniently overlook Reagan’s many shortcomings and outright failures as president.