Although I have railed about Ronald Reagan’s policies in the past I was still not untouched by the Reagan charm. Even though I was very upset by what he did to my country I found I could not hate the man. So although this may not sound sincere, I do send my condolences to his family and friends upon his passing yesterday. If you ask me slowly dying from Alzheimer’s disease is a horrible way to go. I hope my fate is kinder and my death much quicker.
Of course the media is filled nearly to saturation with Reagan perspectives and flashbacks. I’ve been watching and listening to many of them. I remember during the 1988 Vice Presidential debates Dan Quayle compared himself to Jack Kennedy. I guess he did have the hair and the youth. But as Lloyd Bentsen pointed out with devastating effectiveness during the debate: “I knew Jack Kennedy. I served with him. He was my friend. Senator you are no Jack Kennedy.” This telling remark caused the late Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory to remark, “Bentsen bags a Quayle”.
George W. Bush has spent his three plus years trying to pretend he is Ronald Reagan. He has lifted most of his script from Ronald Reagan. He says all the right words. But no one is fooled. He is no Ronald Reagan. He’s not even a pale imitation. He’d be doing himself a service to stop even trying to fill those shoes.
I must say nice things about Ronald Reagan at this time. So today I will concentrate on what I liked and admired about Ronald Reagan. For one thing even to a liberal Democrat like myself, Reagan fully earned the title of “Great Communicator”. He was articulate. When he spoke you could feel the authority in his voice. He was both an actor on stage and a man wholly at peace with himself. He was if nothing else entirely sincere. I remember when he testified about the Iran Contra scandal and said that he couldn’t remember authorizing the policy. Even I gave him the benefit of the doubt. The early stages of his Alzheimer’s disease could be seen from time to time during his second term. But Reagan could not lie. It was not in his nature to be duplicitous.
Bush has already lied numerous times as I’ve pointed out in entries like these. I sometimes wonder if Bush is also suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He seems to get more and more inarticulate every day. But one can roll back video clips of him ten or more years and you can see public speaking was never one of his strong points. Moreover Bush both looks and feels shifty. He doesn’t feel genuine. In that sense he is very much like both Clinton and Nixon. Reagan though was the honest real deal.
Reagan also knew how to lead. What he did to reinvigorate the Republican Party, which was near death’s door in 1964, was nothing short of remarkable. While I quarreled with his methods he was absolutely sincere and forceful in his position: only by acknowledging that government was the problem could the Republicans have a platform that would let them take back Congress and the White House. He proved that he, at least, could make a convincing emotional case that overwhelmed the logical case and we could follow. That was Reagan’s genius. He could make many of us believe the ridiculous.
Not many presidents could do that. Roosevelt made us believe that things were getting better during the Depression and that prosperity was just around the corner. He did manage to put a lot of people on the public dole and give many some feelings of self worth again. But it was faux prosperity that didn’t really return until World War Two. Reagan also had that most rare of gifts. It was shared by only a handful of Presidents. Bill Clinton was one of the most articulate and compelling public speakers I have ever heard. But he couldn’t make us believe the unreasonable. And I think that was because Clinton in his heart understood the complexity of the issues he was advocating. He could see both points of view and could acknowledge he might be wrong, even when he led. Reagan never had this problem. He knew what he believed and he projected it all with his disarming smile and utter sincerity. We trusted him and even when he badly abused our trust time and time again we just couldn’t fault him; he was too nice and too sincere to hate. With Clinton or Bush though we can smell the duplicity.
Reagan was also a true family values man. He lived his values. While his son Ron might disagree about how effective he was as a father, he was a terrific husband. I am envious of his marriage and devotion to Nancy. I would bet not one marriage in a hundred is so tightly integrated and so truly loving. I don’t get that feeling at all about George and Laura. It seems like Bush can’t articulate a sincere thought. When we see George and Laura together that sense of intimacy is wholly absent.
Reagan also had a simple but sincere reckless courage. That was apparent when he was shot by John Hinckley and even joked on his way to the hospital. Like Bush he never fought in a war but unlike Bush he was not afraid to admit his mistakes. When things went wrong, like the Beirut bombing, he accepted responsibility. The buck stopped at his desk.
Sorry, George W. Bush is a Reagan wannabee. He’s hardly unique in that respect. Many have tried to emulate Reagan. But his utter and honest sincerity was impossible to grok in a city full of politicians who quickly learn the art of doublespeak. (It is curious though that Carter had this same “problem” but it worked against him.) John McCain has some of his attributes. He certainly has Reagan’s sincerity and sense of conviction. But he lacks Reagan’s charm and transparency.
It remains to be seen how the Republican Party will fare in a sans-Reagan America. Even if he has remained out of public view for the past ten years Reagan was still the party’s source of inspiration. I hope since the lessons of Reagan and Bush we have learned that while we can admire a man of principle and conviction the real world is far more complex. It’s not a good idea to put people like this in a position of such power. Reagan saw and Bush sees the world in terms of black and white. This approach has proven very costly. Reagan’s decision to bring down communism at all costs meant that we funded terrorists in Central America. Our tax money was used to kill tens of thousands of people in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. Reagan also provided intelligence and supplies to Saddam Hussein. He gave shoulder-launched missiles to people who would eventually become the Taliban. Bush too has shown that not factoring in the complexity of the world is costly and counterproductive. His approach to the war on terrorism only feeds the very forces that want to kill us.
It is my hope that we will appreciate Ronald Reagan the man. But we must learn the lesson that leadership requires more than the force of personality and the assurance of conviction. It also requires a firm grounding in reality. I hope America now understands that pragmatic people like Bill Clinton, for all their faults in the White House, tend to truly serve our public interest better.
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