February 3, 2012
TORONTO, ON, Feb. 3, 2012/ Troy Media/ – If there’s a perch in the afterlife from which spirits look down to take note of what’s been said about them, Ronald Reagan’s ghost must be having a whale of a time. Once dismissed by many, his reputation has bloomed with the passing years.
Modern Republicans have made Reagan their touchstone, the figure to whom everyone pays homage. But some of them used to be less reverential. Mitt Romney, for instance, began his political career by seeking to subtly disassociate himself from Reagan.
Reagan smarter than many thought
This ambivalence also infected conservative intellectuals and commentators. Although Reagan was a long-time subscriber to National Review and a personal friend of founder and Editor-in-chief William F. Buckley, the flagship conservative magazine initially refrained from endorsing his 1980 presidential campaign.
And when Reagan signed the 1987 missile treaty, conservative columnist George Will lamented that the Cold War was lost. (Asked about it years later, Will gracefully recanted: ‘I was wrong; Reagan knew a lot more than I thought he did.’)
Even Democrats give the impression of having had a change of heart, tending to now describe Reagan as a practical man who knew how to compromise. Indeed, a favoured meme is that he’d be too moderate to win the nomination of today’s Republican Party!
But back in the 1980s, they sang a very different song. Then, he was ‘an amiable dunce,’ ‘evil,’ ‘trigger-happy,’ and ‘closer to Herod than he would be to the family of Jesus.’
Reagan also didn’t get a lot of respect from most pundits or academic historians. He does better these days. In fact, liberal historian Sean Wilentz goes so far as to categorise him as one the half-dozen most influential American presidents.
Of all the old media misperceptions, the most egregious had to do with nuclear weapons. Reagan was portrayed as a belligerent cowboy, a man who would blow up the world without much hesitation. It was a picture that found its sharpest expression in Robert Scheer’s 1982 book With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush & Nuclear War.
But it was a portrayal devoid of reality. Although by no means a pacifist, Reagan was actually a nuclear weapons abolitionist. In his view, it was fundamentally immoral to rely on the deterrence doctrine of mutually assured destruction – the idea that a nuclear attack on the U.S. was to be instantly met with a massive nuclear counter-strike.
As the historian John Patrick Diggins put it many years later: ‘Reagan abhorred the idea of massive retaliation, convinced that it renders the retaliator complicit in evil.’ Another historian, Paul Lettow, has noted that ‘some of Reagan’s presidential advisers were almost certain that he would not retaliate in the event of an attack.’
Indeed, this revulsion was at the heart of his often derided missile defence initiative. For him, the object of the exercise was to make nuclear weapons obsolete.
The relevant point isn’t whether Reagan’s perspective was right or wrong, wise or foolish. For what it’s worth, Margaret Thatcher – an ally on many issues – considered him naÃ¯ve on the subject of nuclear weapons.
Instead, the point is that the reality of Reagan didn’t correspond to the general media picture. Far from being a wannabe nuclear bomber, he was closer to the very antithesis.
And, being generally a shrewd observer of human nature, Reagan would recognize some of his new respectability for what it really is. Opportunism.
Insight better than hindsight
For Republicans, there are two attractions. One is that Reagan really was instrumental in tilting the axis of American political life. And the other is that he’s the only successful two-term Republican president of the last 50 years.
For Democrats, it’s a tad more cynical. Through the rear-view mirror, the ‘pragmatic’ Reagan is a convenient rhetorical stick for whacking the alleged extremism of his political descendants.
As for historians and assorted pundits, the motivations are perhaps more benign. Asked about it, Wilentz responded pointedly: ‘People had to overcome their own passions, their own dislikes. Some people had to grow up.’
Hindsight can indeed be a great educator, and due credit should be given to people who are capable of changing their minds when the evidence points that way. That said, a little more insight at the time would have been helpful.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy is a history and economics graduate from University College Dublin, Ireland. He has contributed articles to the National Post, History Ireland, Irish Connections Canada, and Breifne.
This column is FREE to use on your websites or in your publications. However, Troy Media, with a link to its web site, MUST be credited.