The Reagan Re-Evaluation?
My earliest political memories of are the way my father spat the name of Ronald Reagan. "Reagan
," as I heard it, was a word that insinuated feckless stupidity, somehow enabled by the greater part of society, while the rational few could do little but suffer along through the farce. And since that time I've seen little to change my mind; the Gipper, as I have understood him, was described in a nutshell in a famous Nation
piece called "66 Things to Think About when Flying into Reagan National Airport"
The firing of the air traffic controllers, winnable nuclear war, recallable nuclear missiles, trees that cause pollution, Elliott Abrams lying to Congress, ketchup as a vegetable, colluding with Guatemalan thugs, pardons for F.B.I. lawbreakers, voodoo economics, budget deficits, toasts to Ferdinand Marcos, public housing cutbacks, redbaiting the nuclear freeze movement, James Watt.
And that's only the first fourteen.
Of course, if one is interested, there's no lack of hagiographies from the right; sometimes I think that deifying Reagan is the primary function of the conservative movement - certainly it seems to be the only thing upon which everyone on the right can agree. But one thing I've learned is that conservatives, intellectually speaking, are at their worst when making historical analogies, and all the more so when they get crossed up into hero-worship and messianism. So I steer clear.
But what to make of something like "Reconstructing Ronald Reagan,"
from the March 1 edition of the New York Review of Books
? Here's Russell Baker - a liberal, as far as I can tell - approvingly reviewing a quartet of books that would rehabilitate the 40th president. Reagan, Baker tells us, was "mystifying" but also perhaps transformative in a positive sense - a great president, after all.
Baker's primary focus is a book by John Patrick Diggins titled Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History.
Diggins, too is a liberal - yet he rates Reagan as "one of the two or three truly great presidents in American history." Just what the hell is going on here?
Diggins, a professor of intellectual history at CUNY, is apparently interested in casting Reagan as Emerson reincarnated: a "political romantic," who was like the great Transcendentalist in that, as Baker summarizes, he
wanted to rid Americans of the Puritanical tradition, of thinking about life in terms of sin, suffering, and sacrifice. Emerson made the self divine. One did not need to look up or outward to find God. God was within oneself, and so the self itself was sacred, and therefore incapable of sin. Nor could its desires be causes for guilt. Like Emerson, Diggins says, Reagan wanted to free America of an inhibiting fear of selfishness, and indeed to let selfishness flourish.
This Baker contrasts to "the dark Baptist visions" of Jimmy Carter, and the evangelicals' obsessions with sin and failure. Reagan's "morning in America," it seems, was the polar opposite of the born-agains' apocalypse.
But it isn't just that old sunny optimism that moves these writers to recast Reagan's presidency. They also credit him with having ended the Cold War - but not, it is important to note, for the same reasons the conservatives do. The conservative narrative is very simple: devoted to the idea of freedom, Reagan undertook a massive expansion of the American military - particularly the nuclear arsenal - intimidating Americas' enemies and ultimately driving the Soviets to bankruptcy and collapse.
But this isn't the story Baker and Diggins and John Arquilla
tell. Their Reagan was horrified at the Cold War status quo of Casper Weinberger and Richard Perle and Henry Kissinger, with their "'mutual assured destruction,' 'kill ratios,' 'throw weights,' and 'first-strike casualties' numbered in millions." This Reagan came to Washington determined to overthrow such murderous orthodoxies, which held humanity hostage to the specter of nuclear annihilation. One might suggest that this analysis glosses over Reagan's first-term brinksmanship to focus on his later "pragmatism" and "flexibility" - combined with his admittedly idealistic willingness to negotiate one-on-one with Mikhail Gorbachev in an effort to bring about something approaching nuclear disarmament (and Baker, to be fair, argues in favor of giving Gorbachev due credit for being equally bold). Thus was Reagan a great peacemaker, though not for the reasons the right would like to claim he was.
Honestly, I don't know what to do with this. In due time, I'll study the man enough to come to some of my own conclusions, but I would be disingenuous if I tried to rebut such claims given how little I know right now.
The ultimate irony of this debate, though, might be how it centers upon the ways in which Ronald Reagan, icon of conservatism, was in fact a liberal
. Diggins uses the term. And the author, who as we've seen is ready to promote Reagan to the pantheon, is least convinced by his anti-government rhetoric. Baker tells us that Diggins "dismisses this as nonsense." But here - and I have not read the book, so I can judge only by the review - Diggins' analysis seems to put us in a quandary.
If Reagan was the presidential incarnation of Emerson, as Diggins would have it, it was because of the way he celebrated the individual, liberated the individual from the constraints of pessimism and Protestantism, freed the glorious selfishness within. This is a form of American liberalism in its most classic sense. And yet Diggins breaks with Reagan over his own optimism about human nature. Says Baker:
In this, Emerson put Reagan at intellectual odds with the Republic's founders who believed that men were not angels and so needed strong government to preserve an orderly state. Suggesting that men are not angels—Madison's observation—conflicts with Emerson's thinking about the sacred self and so, Diggins says, would have made Reagan frown had he attended the Constitutional Convention.
Fond though he is of Reagan, Diggins comes down at the end on Madison's side:
Reagan told the people what they wanted to hear, whereas the framers told them what they needed to know—a government that refuses to educate, lead, and guide, to elevate and "refine and enlarge" the "passions and interests" of the people, is a government that cannot control the governed and cannot control itself.
But how are we to reconcile this with the glorious "selfishness" that seems to be at the heart of Diggins' praise for Reagan? The modern liberal would say that Madison was surely right - if for the wrong reasons. Ultimately, the unrestrained pursuit of selfishness makes people less
free, because those who stand to gain when selfishness is the governing principle are those who have the most power to aggrandize themselves at the expense of others. Is the modern liberal, unlike her classical forbears, suspicious of human nature? That's a question for another time. But surely the spirit of Emerson - the unwavering belief in the idea that each person should be able to realize her own greatness - requires an understanding that, in modern times, the party of pure self brings along with it fellow-travellers who seek to use the philosophy of selfishness to discredit Madison's idea of government - the better to enrich themselves on the backs of others. Reagan's own glorious appeal to self-interest may have been liberal in an archaic sense of the term, but in effect didn't it serve to negate everything for which liberals have always stood? In other words, don't we need Madison now in order to have Emerson? And if Reagan rejected the former, how could he be described as having emulated the latter?
So I've got a lot to learn. Because right now, I'm still stuck at the very beginning of Baker's review, mystified.
Labels: John Patrick Diggins, Ronald Reagan, Russell Baker