The arrival of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday will be accompanied by a chorus of fond reminiscences and misty-eyed appreciations.
In fact, the tributes are already underway. And, they are not just coming from Dutch’s ideological descendants. President Barack Obama, writing in USA Today, gushed about the 40th president’s fondness for change and compromise.
There was a time when a love letter from a liberal leader to Reagan would be surprising. No longer. Death, the hindsight of history, a sympathetic public, and a handful of dedicated historians and opportunistic politicians have turned this once divisive and controversial leader into a bipartisan reminder of our better angels.
This may cause Reaganites to rejoice, but as Gipper-appreciation goes mainstream there is a real risk that his accomplishments, beliefs, and importance will be obscured. And, perhaps worse, appropriated.
The growing consensus on Reagan’s greatness, the direct result of the fall of the Soviet Union and the lifting of the national funk brought on by the painful sequence of Vietnam, Watergate, and Jimmy Carter, is warranted.
And his apotheosis, seen in the proliferation of Ronald Reagan fields, streets, boulevards, turnpikes, peace gardens, bridges, and even a bust in a McDonald’s in Alabama, should be welcomed.
Formerly an amiable dunce, he has become a transcendent visionary lauded by Republicans and Democrats alike.
It’s a not a singular transformation.
Abraham Lincoln, once the “Ape Baboon of the Prairie,” is now the Great Emancipator; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so-called traitor to his class, is credited with carrying us through the Great Depression; Harry Truman, the former “senator from Pendergast,” is now every would-be president’s beau ideal of a statesman.
The problem with this type of posthumous approbation is that it inevitably shears the prickly partisan edges from the object of adoration and turns them into an all-purpose folk hero, open to subjective interpretations.
Obama for example, constantly searching for a grand political figure to define himself by, seems to have set his sights on Reagan. A lengthy feature in Time laid out the President’s Reaganesque blueprint for the remainder of his term — which of course immodestly replaces the immodest Lincolnesque, and then Rooseveltian ambitions he has already digressed through — while pointing out the (tenuous) similarities between the two men.
Obama’s choice of Reagan as a role model is nothing new. During the 2008 campaign he professed that it was Reagan, rather then Bill Clinton, who matched his transformative vision. Around this time, other Democrats were retrenching as well.
John Kerry and Al Gore positioned Reagan as a foil to the detested George W. Bush by praising his diplomacy and newly-discovered environmental record.Rahm Emanuel confessed to Politico “I never thought I’d say this, but I long for the pragmatism of Ronald Reagan.” Harry Reid told the same publication “[Reagan’s] kind of leadership is missing today. That’s what the American people want back.”
This new, warm and cuddly (and generally non-idelogical) Reagan is not just the exclusive property of politicians. In Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, the late historian John Patrick Diggins’s postulated that Reagan was not even a conservative. According to Diggins, “Far from being a conservative, Reagan was the great liberating spirit of modern American history.… Reagan’s relation to liberalism may illuminate modern America more than his relation to conservatism…”
In these new narratives, Reagan is a hero and a great president, but the emphasis is on his pragmatism, diplomacy, and generally unconservative behavior. It’s increasingly difficult to find the conservative who generated histrionic levels of disgust from Democrats.
Arthur Schlesinger wrote, “A few years from now, I believe, Reaganism will seem a weird and improbable memory, a strange interlude of national hallucination, rather as the McCarthyism of the early 1950s and the youth rebellion of the late 1960s appear to us today.”
That was not a voice in the wilderness. It spoke for the majority on the left. And it was wrong.
Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and told the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall. It no longer stands. He predicted communism would end up on the ash heap of history. Thanks to his efforts, it did. And, in Edmund Morris’s words, ever the old lifeguard, he rescued America from “a time of despair and… ‘carried her breastward out of peril.'”
Naturally Reagan, like any successful president, was not allergic to compromise in pursuit of his objectives. And he was a far more complicated figure than many of his admirers admit. But his triumphs were caused by his conservatism, not in spite of it. And they were always underpinned by his belief in the American people’s ability to govern themselves, the danger inherent in Washington’s attempts to remedy all of society’s ills, and of course, his country’s predestined greatness.
Despite the recent protestations otherwise, these things remain anathema to Reagan’s new-found fans.
Obama, for example, may think he sees Reagan’s reflection in the mirror, but the 40th president rose to power on a promise to reverse the course of a government still running on the fumes of the New Deal and Great Society. The 44th, however, has staked his presidency on the endless paternalistic possibilities of an active and expanded federal government.
This last point is especially relevant as Americans pause to observe the coming centennial. The country is again at an ideological fork in the road. Reagan would recognize the choice at hand, and choose the road to the right.
Republicans need not always search for the next Reagan or insist that all future standard bearers be made in his image. But they should continue to remind themselves and the rest of the country that his legacy, rather than monument to bipartisan pragmatism, is a testament to the righteousness of American conservatism.