Remembering President Reagan

[This article originally appeared at Electric Review, where it must, perhaps fittingly, have been one of the final posts.]

1st PERSON: No sunset for the better world he brought us: Remembering President Reagan

What can any ordinary mortal hope to add to the mountain of tributes already laid around the catafalque of the late Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States, who died quietly at his California home last night? Not a lot, really. How, for instance, to improve on Lady Thatcher’s words?

‘President Reagan was one of my closest political and dearest personal friends.

‘He will be missed not only by those who knew him and not only by the nation that he served so proudly and loved so deeply, but also by millions of men and women who live in freedom today because of the policies he pursued. Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the Cold War for liberty, and he did it without a shot being fired.

‘To have achieved so much against so many odds and with such humour and humanity made him a truly great American hero.’

Doubtless in the days that pass between now and what is likely to be the gravest and most magnificent American state funeral of our times, many of those who were close to President Reagan, whether as world statesmen or political allies or simply as friends, will each do their part, large or small, to commemorate an American life so strange, enchanted and world-alteringly significant as to frustrate the historian as much as the poet or moralist. President Reagan was, simply, the most important figure in American history since — well, who? It hardly matters. He was without parallel, and even as that long warm sunset of his later years fades finally into forgiving night, it is hard to imagine the world without him.

Yet at the same time, how can anyone who grew up in the United States during the 1970s and 80s — anyone whose formative years coincided so exactly with those of the Reagan Era — fail to pause, today, and reflect on what people of my generation owe to President Reagan? As always, at the death of someone who loomed so large in one’s mental world, the memories come flooding back, effortlessly eliding the personal with the political.

Thus today I remember congratulating myself on whatever ruses — pretend fever, stomach bug, what was it? — had been necessary to ensure that on that cold January morning in 1981, instead of being stuck in some interminable Latin lesson I was in fact at home, ensconced on a sofa in front of the television-set, on the day of the President’s inauguration. Four long years of President Carter — the man who waved and grinned gormlessly while reviewing troops, whose remedy for inflation and high interest rates lay in galloping recession, who gave away the Panama Canal, who kept sending US troops abroad on pointless errands but could not protect them from kidnapping or slaughter, who spoke of a ‘malaise’ afflicting America but instead of dispelling it seemed to be overcome by it himself — ensured that even lifelong Southern Democrats were, tacitly or otherwise, quite pleased to see the back of a head of state who had managed to make President Ford look dignified and statesmanlike. And then there had been the whole business of the presidential debates, where President Carter, shrill and unimpressive, have been floored by a masterful ‘there you go again’ — a simple phrase, a simple idea, delivered by a tall figure with film-star good looks, a wry smile, and an air of relaxed self-confidence. As President Carter was to learn, leaders can survive being challenged or denounced, but it’s harder to come back from being made to look plain old silly. Across America, hearts hardened. Reagan won the election by a modest landslide.

So the inauguration seemed, even before it started, to herald good things. But who could have predicted how it was to turn out? For something like 14 months, the more news-obsessed sort of American had been watching with an increasingly nauseating cocktail of sorrow and impotence the fate of 52 Americans, held captive by a dismal and discreditable regime in distant Iran, a situation about which the self-proclaimed ‘greatest nation on earth’ could apparently do nothing. President Reagan was only a few words into his Inaugural Address before a newsflash ran along the bottom of the television screen, announcing that the Iranian hostages were being set free. I can remember, even now, throwing off that wool blanket and thundering through the house to find my mother to tell her the news, all thoughts of needing to look sickly entirely forgotten in the excitement of the moment. Here, obviously, was a President who could get things done — without even looking as if he were trying. It’s a cliché, now, but if writing down these memories has any purpose, it is simply to testify once again to the validity of this particular cliché. After Vietnam, after Watergate, after the grinding social and economic awfulness of much of the 1960s and 70s, all of a sudden it really did feel as if the nightmare had ended — as if at long last we really were, in the new President’s words, waking up to ‘morning in America’.

And then there were other Reagan memories — so many of them! Who can forget, for instance, the masterful way in which he dealt with the tiresomely militant air traffic controllers of PATCO — by sacking the lot of them, with no apparent ill effects in terms of public safety? Who could forget those imaginative Supreme Court appointments? Who could forget the amusing havok he unleashed upon a richly-deserving NEA? Who could forget the convulsive horror he engendered in an increasingly desperate and self-loathing left? Who could forget how very good he looked on horseback — a sort of Marlboro Man who was equally at ease with the Queen or with his ranch-hands, riding out on our behalf to take on the Evil Empire? Best of all, who could forget his unflappable playfulness of this Great Communicator when faced with an open microphone: ‘My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I have signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes’? Such moments may be transmuting, with the passing of years, into the stuff of legend. What is certain, though, is that they will long be remembered.

But then there’s that other memory from the very early days of the administration, perhaps just as important in the light of hindsight. As usual, my neighbour David Allred’s huge, morose, rather smelly but oddly likeable maid was collecting us from school in order to drive us home in her big, dysfunctional 1960s Chevrolet, but this time the car radio, which generally transmitted a haze of interference punctuated by occasional snatches of recognisable gospel music, instead announced, somewhere along Six Forks Road, that the President had been shot. What to make of this? Self-consciously, I stopped to remember where I was, because of course I’d been raised on a constant diet of other people’s recollections of 22 November 1963. Actually, being honest, I was probably just young and heartless enough to be pleased, in a strange sort of way, that for once I was experiencing ‘history’, that thing that had previously only happened to people of my parents’ generation or older. And after all, anyone who had done the sums knew perfectly well that, according to some strange numerological formula which I’ve now forgotten, President Reagan was ‘due’ not to finish his term in any event. But then, as soon as I was at home and once more stationed in front of the television set, it dawned on me how very frightening political assassinations really are. What I saw on the little grainy screen was much more disordered, shambolic, hard-to-make-out and frankly scary that anything that would happen on film. Perhaps, in those long minutes, I’d grown up a little. Very soon, all I wanted was to be reassured that things were normal again — that random irruptions of horror into everyday life could not, in fact, be allowed to alter our world.

And so, miraculously, it proved. There were President Reagan’s words to the surgeons as he was rushed into the operating theatre in order to remove a bullet lodged millimetres from his heart: ‘I hope you’re all Republicans!’ (Swift and apparently heartfelt reply from a waiting surgeon: ‘Mr President, we’re all Republicans today.’) Or his words to his beloved wife Nancy when next he saw her: ‘Honey, I forgot to duck’? These were revealing moments, showing the world several things simulaneously about America’s new President. Not least, although he had conspicuously failed (unlike several of his predecessors and at least one of his successors) to do much of any interest in the Second World War, all of a sudden his physical courage was beyond doubt. But for me, at least, his words also suggested two other things. One was simply that, despite what his critics might and in fact did say (of which, more later) President Reagan was anything but stupid. What did the Gore Vidals and the Joan Didions and the rest of the New York Review of Books crowd think, I wondered — that he had a speech-writer feeding him index cards as he lay on a stretcher coughing up blood? But the more important thing these events told me about President Reagan had more to do with confidence, charm, resolution, good manners and even better luck. In a word: whatever being conservative meant, it did not mean being apologetic, doom-laden, bitter, dismissive or half in love with the notion of one’s own inevitable defeat and historical irrelevance. Reagan knew he was going to be all right, he reassured us that he was going to be all right, and by God — well, he was all right! Being conservative, under this new dispensation, meant laughing in the face of the carping critics — even the ones who brandished firearms — safe in the certainty that in the long run, at least, one was on the winning side. What could be more different from the liberalism of the 1960s and 70s in which I’d been brought up? That, in a word, was one way in which President Reagan really did change my life — and those of many others of my generation and beyond.

Of course there were failures too along the way, and moments that don’t exactly shine with credit under the lurid glare of hindsight. Arming Islamic militants in Afghanistan may not have been a great idea. Invading Grenada was regrettable. Selling arms to Iraq might have been silly. You can make up your own list of these things. Personally, I’ll happily leave that sort of project to those more alert to the nuances of international relations than I am, and more convinced of their importance. For my part, it’s obvious that no leader is perfect. It would be bizarre to expect President Reagan to have avoided every pitfall that lay in his path, any more than one expected Mrs Thatcher to have led her party for so many years without ever making a false step. Which of us doesn’t, now and then, get something terrifically wrong? Set the mistakes against the achievements, and these few moments hardly seem to matter. Enormous power offers commensurately enormous opportunity for miscalculation, as so many US presidents have shown to spectacular, frankly alarming effect. If there was a peculiarity of the Reagan administration, it was simply that the miscalculations were so few — even before the revisionist historians get to work on them.

Yet it’s a curiosity of President Reagan’s legacy that so much of the criticism levelled at him — abroad, as well as at home — tended to centre not on what he did, but instead on who he was. First came the notion that he was ‘just an actor’ and hence inevitably stupid. Leave aside, for a moment, the improbability of imagining that sort of comment levelled at, say, the repulsive and patronising Glenda Jackson, let alone the many US entertainers — Barbra Streisand, Michael Douglas, etc — who now feel unable to remain silent on a whole range of foreign and domestic matters. The real oddity here is what that account leaves out. I can remember, on first arriving in the country that is now my home, listening to spotty little would-be Cambridge Union hacks, the height of whose aspirations was presiding over, say, the Library Committee for a term or two, condemning as a moron a man who had not only, starting from nothing, made a small fortune for himself, but who had also served for eight years as governor of California — a state with a higher GDP than most countries in the world can claim — but who had also been elected twice to preside over a major global power. Did this pattern of behaviour not suggest anything to my little interlocutors, I wondered? Who, exactly, was calling whom stupid?

Let’s be honest. A lot of the criticism thrown at President Reagan, coming from the sort of left-liberals who are quickest to bay about the virtues of meritocracy, could not stand the fact that this phenomenally successful election-winner was in some sense a political outsider — an independent-minded individual who was more than willing to staff his administration with people from outside the Beltway and from outside the ranks of the Ivy League liberal clerisy, and also admirably uninhibited when it came to offering patronage to exactly the men and women whom this clerisy hated most. When it comes to meritocracy, it appears, for the left, some aspirants are more equal than others. Apparently, in America, anyone can be president — unless he happens to quote von Mises and Hayek, talk about God like a dear old friend and to act as if there might be something morally questionable about the ideology that gave us Lenin and Stalin, reduced large swathes of the globe to abject economic and social destitution, and that killed more people in the past century than did any other belief-system.

By acting as if he didn’t always take the whole business of being president terribly seriously — as if he somehow felt that people out in the real world might possibly know at least as much as their leaders did — President Reagan did not always endear himself to those whose solution to everything was more funding, more regulation and more state intrusion into everyday existence. About all of this, he appeared totally unapologetic. Strangely, his trickle-down economic policies worked, as anyone who lived through those times, and saw the results in terms of shopping-malls and cars and restaurants and everything else, must surely be aware. More to the point, though, in time, the greatest geopolitical challenge of the latter half of the twentieth century simply cleared away, like the morning mist that hides the noonday sun. What, then, could the left possibly say about President Reagan? They could mock this increasingly imperial presidency, the Halston frocks, the helmet-like hairdos, the court astrologers, the perceived lack of intellectual firepower — well, it was a lot easier than criticising the policies, wasn’t it? But at the end of the day, we all knew that JFK’s more learned remarks had been written for him by paid pet intellectuals while he was off chasing (and murdering) film stars, and that Jimmy Carter could recite the poems of Dylan Thomas but could do little else of value or interest, and that both of these presidencies had been complete and utter disasters. In contrast, our genial, wisecracking Head of State was exactly as smart as he needed to be. In fact, I suspect that as more comes to be known about his own speech-writing and so forth, he may well turn out to be even smarter than that.

Reagan also gave America a new kind of Republican voter. In the decaying and dispirited post-industrial cities of the North — the world of Bruce Springsteen, the Simpsons and so forth — his words and his manner caught the imagination of a generation of working-class voters, often traditionalist Roman Catholics from relatively recent immigrant backgrounds, who had been grievously let down by a Democratic Party that was at once stultified by trade union dominance while at the same time becoming rebarbatively liberal on social matters. Meanwhile, in a South just beginning to recover from the convulsions of the Civil Rights movement, Reagan offered up an alternative Republican Party so close to authentic Southern preoccupations — so anti-federalist, so respectful of traditional values at home and so tough-minded abroad — as to prove irresistible. Finally, for former communists long since mellowed into McGovernite Democrats, but as sickened by the weakness, irresolution and downright incompetence of the Carter years as they were by anything Nixon had done — people like my mother, in other words — Reagan really did seem to offer something new and different that was at least worth a try. In all of this, it should be said, Reagan’s personality probably mattered as much as any speech he ever made or any policy he ever enacted. His accent, after all, was California-bland and totally pan-regional, the accent of the television or the big screen rather than any discernable place or people. His Hollywood background blurred all possible issues of social class or ethnicity. It should also be remembered that Reagan was no Bible-bashing Moral Majoritarian — he was, in fact, a divorced actor whose circle of friends included people of many different faiths, races and sexual orientations. Finally, there was something forgiving and unifying about all that good humour, the down-to-earth pragmatism and the accompanying appeal to higher values — a wholly distinctive type of ideological clarity that in an only slightly different light looked very much like incredibly shrewd realism.

Who else could have done such a thing? Barry Goldwater, of course, is the John the Baptist figure in this story. Many of the leitmotivs of the Reagan message were in fact adumbrated long beforehand — the spirited attacks on sacred cows, the total lack of enthusiasm for organised labour, the robust and active hatred of communism, the whole language of individual initiative as favoured alternative to collective action. Goldwater also, it must be said, did his part to remind Southerners that the Party of Lincoln might, a century or so later, have possibly morphed into a party with something to say to Southerners — as long as they were white, of course, and keen on an aggressive foreign policy. That Reagan was able to soften and refine this message was in part the product of the times in which he was campaigning — enforced desegregation was, by 1980, a fact of life rather than a point of contention, the Vietnam War a bad memory rather than a gaping maw requiring non-stop pointless sacrifice — but also, to no small extent, an issue of tone. His was the gift of being able to express absolute conviction without striking a strident note, to have firm beliefs without ever seeming to take himself too seriously, and — magnificently — to hate the sin without sounding anything other than mildly, gently regretful and a bit concerned about the sinner. It was a style that played well on television and in the press, prying voters away from historic allegiances and seducing them into reconsidering the preconceptions of a lifetime. Who else, other than Reagan, could have pulled this one off? My own feeling, for what it is worth, is that if Reagan hadn’t been born and a whole string of contingencies hadn’t led him to the White House, our world today could have been dramatically different. And that, if nothing else, makes him — made him — one of the most significant figure of our times.

His greatest achievement was, undoubtedly, the role he played in the defeat of Marxism as an active proposition. Yes, of course, I know that it is possible, perhaps even advisable, to hem this sort of statement round with reservations. No one is suggesting that the former states of the Eastern Bloc now constitute flawless little paradises of capitalist enterprise in which individual freedom flourishes unchecked by criminality or oppression. No one — not at Electric Review, anyway — is forgetting those who still have to suffer Marxism-in-action in China, Cuba or the many third world countries in which LSE-trained despots of various sorts combine collectivism with their own indigenous forms of tyranny. Nor is anyone suggesting that the post-Cold War order has seen a totally unproblematic increase in peace, stability and prosperity for the West. Neither, finally, is anyone trying to claim that the general demise of communism owed everything to President Reagan and Lady Thatcher alone, since both would have been quick to draw attention to the courage, ingenuity and persistence of the many men and women who risked so much in the pursuit of freedom, whether in their own countries or further afield. But once those reservations have been marched across the rhetorical stage, what then? Simply the realisation of how much has changed for the better over the last fifteen years or so — a realisation no less profound for how natural those changes now seem.

One has to look back with some honesty to see the truth of this. When I was a small child I went through a phase of being frightened every time an aeroplane overflew my North Carolinian bedroom, fearing that nuclear Armageddon, which I had read about in books, was only a minute or so away. Then as a dreamy, romantic schoolgirl I desperately wanted to visit Leningrad [sic] to see the treasures of Tsarist Russia — a dream as unyieldingly impossible, so it seemed, as a desire for face-to-face conversation with the dead. And when I was an undergraduate I had friends who lamented that they would never see their relatives, whose names they knew but whose faces were unfamiliar dreams, hidden behind the Iron Curtain. Yet by the time I had begun my doctoral work, only a few years later, the grave-but-nice young man in the room next to mine in Portugal Street had grown up in St Petersburg [sic], thinking he’d never see the country that had given birth to the nineteenth century English literature he even then loved so much. Now if a friend finds a new Russian flatmate, or if my investment banker husband mentions an Estonian or Hungarian colleague, or if someone suggests going to Slovenia for a Kraftwerk concert, who’d think twice about it? All of which is a long way of saying that while it would be insane to suggest that the end of the Cold War signalled the start of Earthly Paradise, it would also be insane to deny the hugely beneficial, enabling effect that the end of communism has had on individual lives, not only in the East but in the West, too. As we commemorate the sacrifices of D-Day, it is worth remembering that a system even more vicious, corrosive and destructive than that of Hitler’s Germany survived into our own times, and that not everyone, here in the comfortable tolerant West, bothered even to speak up against it. President Reagan did more than that. It is something that none of us should forget.

How he did it, of course, is a slightly different question — again, one I am happy, in general, to leave to specialist analysis. But for what it is worth, I suspect that once again, President Reagan’s success had as much to do with both tone and personality as it did with substance or ideology. On one hand, as the reaction of both Iranian hostage-takers and the liberal American left showed clearly enough, President Reagan was quick to employ a tough, emphatic, coherent rhetoric in favour of key, easy-to-understand values. How far could he be pushed? How crazy was he, really? Who wanted to be the first to find out? That, surely, was the signal merit of ‘mistakes’ like the ‘we start bombing in five minutes’ quip, or faintly curious activities like the development of the rather Hollywood-sounding Star Wars programme. In every area of endeavour, President Reagan seemed to be tearing up the political rule-book and starting again, using a combination of Sunday School moralising, Austrian theorising and cowboy bravado, finished off with a generous coating of unnervingly good luck. On the other hand, once it had become clear to him — over the heads of some of his closest advisors, apparently — that President Gorbachev might also be capable, in his own way, of re-writing a few political rules himself, he behaved with something that looks, in retrospect, remarkably like pragmatism — not the wet, apologetic pragmatism of someone who knows he hasn’t got a choice, either, but the easy, relaxed pragmatism of someone who knows that he has right, might and, quite possibly, history itself on his side. President Reagan was, as we know, no soldier, but he must have known that oft-trotted-out line as familiar at West Point as it is at RMA Sandhurst: the best battle is the one you can win without firing a single shot. The elegance of President Reagan’s achievement lay in making what happened look like historical inevitability. The brilliance of it, of course, lay in the fact that historical inevitability doesn’t exist and that without President Reagan’s unique blend of action and compromise, it all could have gone very differently. And to paraphrase the words he addressed to the American voters while standing against President Carter — well, yes, we are better off now than we were 23 years ago. One thinks of Wren’s epitaph: Si Monumentum Requiris, Circumspice.

But then, of course, it takes a real effort of imagination to remember how far our world has come from that of January 1981. It isn’t just a question of remembering the Cold War. Remember when leaders of historic left-wing political parties enthusiastically spoke up for socialism, praised the planned economy over the free market, offered up nationalisation and tax rises as economic panaceas, stood in awe of trade unions, had absolutely no concept of wider share ownership or entrepreneurial initiative, and opposed the use of nuclear weapons? Remember, come to that, when even historically conservative parties had to adopt much of this language in order to avoid charges of extremism? Remember when whole neighbourhoods didn’t need to be canvassed because one could take it for granted that every single sentient being would simply answer ‘We’re Democrats’ or ‘I’m Labour’, as if this condition were as natural and immutable as a blood-group, rather than being the fruit of perception, sentiment and choice? Remember when it really did look as if history were moving in one direction, so that a conservative was simply someone who wished, vainly, that such motion would simply happen a little more slowly?

This is the world into which I was born, in the mid 1960s, and this is the world that President Reagan and a few like-minded souls, from the late 1970s onwards, changed forever. To me, anyway, the difference between then and now is unmissable. Over the next few days, the tributes paid to the late President — the fulsome and fitting encomia offered by world leaders, old friends and grateful strangers — will quite possibly give way to some spectacularly unpleasant and unfair denunciation. From some in America we shall, no doubt, hear a lot about foreign policy failures — not least, from the sort of people who believe that President Clinton did a good job. Enough said. Others will blame President Reagan for the fact that lots of their friends died from AIDS — as if any amount of speech-making or quango-establishment could have halted in its tracks a disease which at the time was as mysterious and subject to misunderstanding as it was terrifyingly and tragically entrenched. Still others, mostly if by no means all overseas, will enjoy the opportunity to give vent to yet more reflexive, unthinking and frankly foolish anti-American rhetoric, positioning the late President in a long line of hated war-mongers stretching from LBJ to the present-day Dubya. In the main, they can do this in countries where they are allowed to protest freely, enjoying conditions of material prosperity and physical safety that would be the wonder and envy of every other generation that has ever occupied this world. And that, I suppose, is all President Reagan would have hoped for them. What to do with such criticism? We should simply take it as the most profound, because the most inadvertent and unconscious, sort of tribute to the ongoing power of his achievements, to the fact that his spirit is with us still, even if he, himself, has finally vanished off into the gentle sunset he had for so long anticipated. As for his critics, the ineffectual hum of their condemnation should distress his grieving family and admirers as little as it would have distressed this brave, wise, generous and irreplaceable man himself.

Bunny Smedley is Arts Editor of Electric Review.

Bunny Smedley, June 6, 2004 06:35 PM

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