Right Thinking From The Left Coast
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Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Century for the Gipper

Today is Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday.  Coming of age in Reagan’s America, I thought all politicians were like him—inspiring, principled, competent.  It took a while to realize that such men, while being not uncommon in life, are very uncommon in politics.  The process itself tends to draw out a certain kind of individual.

Reagan did not start out as a politician.  He was an actor, a union rep and spokesman for GE.  He came to politics because of ideas not because he grew up thinking it was his destiny and certainly not because of misbegotten ideas about identity politics.  Here is his 1964 “Time for Choosing” address, which was his first big splash.  What strikes me, in contrast to today’s politicians, is the attention to fact, the intellectual fire and the lack of partisan brimstone.

What Reagan did better than anyone was govern.  There was an astonishing lack of dogma in his presidency and a perpetual willingness to change course as events warranted.  Reagan cut taxes massively at first, but raised them when the deficit began to get out of control.  He believed in fighting tyranny, but kept us out of long-term engagements (most notably, pulling our soldiers out of Lebanon). He took a tough line with the Soviets, but worked with them when he could.

Reagan’s ability to think for himself enraged both the political class and his own advisors.  Half his staff wanted to quit when he walked away from Gorbachev at Reykjavik.  The other half wanted to quit when he signed the INF.  Half the economists proclaimed that his tax cuts and tight money policies would be the end of the Republic.  The other half screamed that his tax hikes and tax reform would wreck the economy.  The armchair historians said he was crazy when he predicted the demise of the Soviet bloc, said he was insane when he called out Gorby for not going far enough then danced on his gave claiming the collapse of Communism was inevitable and he had nothing to do with it.

He was an example of how people should come to politics rather than the way they do.  Noonan:

The point is that Reagan’s career is a guide, not only for the tea party but for all in politics. He brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him. He wasn’t in search of a life when he ran for office, and he wasn’t in search of fame; he’d already lived a life, he was already well known, he’d accomplished things in the world.

Here is an old tradition badly in need of return: You have to earn your way into politics. You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent: You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can’t just bully them, you can’t just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade.

The results were astounding.  Few people remember just how bad things were in 1980.  Our economic situation was arguably worse than 2008.  Many proclaimed that the communist system was just as good as the capitalist one and happily swept the crimes of communism under the carpet.  The threat of nuclear annihilation was something we would have to live with in perpetuity.  America’s military had just had a debacle of a rescue mission in Iran.  I recently re-read the comments in Robert A. Heinlein’s Expanded Universe, written in 1980.  The pessimism that Heinlein—a notorious optimist—felt about this country was palpable.

By the end of the decade, we were living a completely different country.  The Soviet bloc was collapsing, the nuclear shadow was fading, the economy was booming and our military would shortly wipe the floor with one of the world’s largest armies (one mostly equipped by the Soviets).  True, our deficit situation was bad.  But Reagan had taken steps to try to fix that by raising taxes and trying to cut spending.  And he would turn out to be a piker compared to Bush II or Obama.

Those who would claim to be the heirs of Reagan have only distorted memories of what he stood for.  Reagan was no neocon.  He was not a dogmatic anti-tax maniac.  He saw the need for government but saw its limitations.  He saw the need to compromise—but his compromises increased our freedom. He wanted to win elections, but did not let this desire define policy (with the lamentable exception of the War on Drugs).  He believed in conservatism rather than just mouth platitudes and promise to “never compromise” on his way to selling us down the river.  He wanted to govern, not prattle like a third-rate talk-show host.

This probably sounds more worshipful than I intend it to be.  The respect for Reagan goes a bit too far in some quarters.  There were many mistakes made by Reagan.  Moreover, Reagan was a man for his time and his solutions were for his time.  They have limited applicability today.  Asking “what would Reagan do” is a futile question.  We don’ know what he’d do and we don’t know that he’d necessarily be right. He was a man, not a god.

The inspiration we should draw from Reagan is not on specific policies.  The inspiration we should draw is how powerful a conservative philosophy is when it comes with life experience, pragmatism, political skill, the ability to explain complex ideas, intellectual curiosity and flexibility.

Here is what I said a few years ago:

When Reagan died, I had just returned from Australia and was extremely tired. But I drove down to DC to pay my respects. I was in line for six hours. I was in line with people from all walks of life. Black and white, rich and poor, conservative and liberal were all there to pay their respect to the man. The card I received in the Capitol is framed on my wall. People loved Reagan and it wasn’t because he was a nice man. It was because he was a true conservative. And it was refreshing for me to see that not only did millions of Americans get this, they respected and admired it.

And Lee’s comment:

This was just as true in Los Angeles.  When Reagan died, and his body was being transferred to the Reagan Library for burial, people lined the streets.  Now, this is in one of the most liberal parts of the country.  But Reagan was able to communicate so well, he was able to create a class of voter known as a “Reagan Democrat.” The sides of the freeways were PACKED, just like the infamous OJ low-speed chase.  The local news was doing man-on-the-street interviews, and people were saying things like:

“I’m not a Republican, but I really liked Reagan and what he stood for.”

“Reagan inspired Americans to believe in themselves.”

“I might not have agreed with him politically, but there were no dirty tricks with Reagan.  He said what he believed and he stuck with it.  I admired that.”

Happy Birthday, Mister President.

Update: I was searching the blog to try to find any wisdom Lee laid down after Reagan died.  I’ll post anything I find.  But this post, about Virginia naming a road after Reagan, had me in stitches.

Update: More from Lee here and here.  There’s some more stuff, if you care to go to about page 793 of the archive.  Some of the permalinks aren’t working for me.

Update: The Left is out in force to smear Reagan.  Just to crush one meme—Reagan did not cause and did not ignore the AIDS epidemic.  I can’t find it anywhere else, but RonaldReagan.com has a comment with Sullivan’s “Ronald Reagan did not give me HIV” article transcribed.  Worth a read.

Posted by Hal_10000 on 02/06/11 at 10:34 AM in Deep Thoughts  • (0) TrackbacksPermalink
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