“Reagan was not a stupid man, but he sometimes took refuge in stupid lies.”—Doug Rossinow
In the following excerpt, Doug Rossinow, author of The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s, examines the legacy of Reagan and his policies:
The relationship of post-1990 conservatives to Reaganism was an ambivalent one. Some elements of the Reaganite formula lived on in the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Fiercely unapologetic patriotism and a belief in U.S. military preponderance remained fundamental tenets for most conservatives. So did faith in unrestrained business as a source of social good, and the cherished ideal of hardy individualism, free from entanglements with the state. But the conservatism of Bush and his supporters departed from Reagan’s in other respects. Fiscally, it was more responsible; politically, it was coarser. The balance of sentiment on the American right, as of 1990, was tipping away from the embrace of hedonism that had marked the 1980s, and toward cultural traditionalism. In terms of foreign policy, Americans looked back to Reagan for little guidance as a new age of resource wars in the Persian Gulf vicinity dawned. Later in the 1990s, foreign policy neoconservatives would call for “a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence.” These were undeniably Reaganite values. But Americans would find it hard to say, after the Cold War’s conclusion, exactly what foreign policies those values should dictate.
Just as aspects of Reaganism lived on, so did Reagan’s personal legend. At his presidency’s end, Reagan shucked off the worst e.ects of scandal and emerged an honored figure. His farewell address in 1989 was graceful, yet self-satisfied. At one and the same time, he downplayed his own role as an individual in creating change and boasted of a nation made “more prosperous, more secure, and happier” because of his leadership. “All in all, not bad,” he said, in grading his accomplishments in office; “not bad at all.” The Reagans moved back to their ranch in the hills near Santa Barbara, but the former president ventured out in the ensuing years to make highly paid appearances before business groups. Some found this unbecoming; previously, among ex-presidents, only Gerald Ford had cashed in on his status in this way. (Americans would become accustomed to this habit over time, as retired presidents of both parties would follow suit.) In November 1990, Reagan’s memoir, An American Life, was published. It exuded his characteristic combination of self-effacement and complacency. Even before Reagan drifted into senescence in the mid-1990s—a victim of Alzheimer’s disease—he became a symbol of the 1980s, a totem of the conservative narrative of recent American history: the man who saved the country from self-doubt and liberal failure. Conservatives emphatically identified Reagan with their creed and their movement—the way liberals long had identified their own cause with Franklin Roosevelt—and for decades would proclaim themselves Reagan’s heirs, even as they swore they would never do things that Reagan had done, such as raise taxes or approve an amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Understanding Reaganism is more important than knowing Reagan. But there is no interpreting the 1980s without arriving at a judgment on Reagan, who, it seems likely, will always be closely tied to our memories of that era.
He was a great success in many ways. He was an ideologue who recognized political realities and bowed to them when necessary, taking his gains where he could. He defied those who had said, during the 1970s, that the presidency had become an impotent office, the president the chief in name only of a system beyond anyone’s control. Where Reagan led, many followed. Neither the childlike analytical capacities that Reagan sometimes displayed nor the peculiarly passive stance he took toward much of his own government’s operations negates that achievement in leadership. He did restore national confidence and the traditional American belief in the beneficence of U.S. power. At great expense, he left the United States in a position to dominate the world through force of arms, its military loaded for bear.
The historian David T. Courtwright observes, mischievously but accurately, “Reagan was to money what [Hugh] Hefner was to sex: an iconic cheerleader for a profound moral change in an age when celebrities created as well as reflected values.” Reagan led a movement that wrenched political debate in America away from concern over poverty and unemployment, which remained problems in the 1980s and at times grew markedly worse. One of Reaganism’s basic components was the idea that Americans should get what they could, when they could. Surely this attitude bore some connection to the impressive corruption that marked Reagan’s presidential administration. In the George H. W. Bush years, even as the previous regime’s misdeeds continued to make news, the realization that the new president’s own son, Neil, had been recruited as an officer at a thrift that had gone belly-up, costing the taxpayers millions of dollars, threatened to mark the entire Republican Party as unethical and greedy.
Corruption in government was nothing new, and it certainly was not the exclusive property of one party (as discussed in chapter 11, the savings-and-loan crisis resulted from a sterling example of bipartisan collaboration). But it was snowballing, seemingly out of control, in the late 1980s, and it was not hard to trace the problem back to a creed that celebrated individual enrichment—one rightly identified with Reagan.
Neither the public corruption of the 1980s nor the failure of conservatives to reduce the scale of government restored luster to the idea of big-government liberalism. To the contrary, Reaganism, both in theory and in reality, reinforced the cloud of suspicion that had gathered over government in America during the 1960s and 1970s. It was Reagan’s legacy to render axiomatic, for broadened swaths of the American public, the evils of taxation and the unsavory character of regulation. The vision of the free economy and the weak state, only partially fulfilled, was renewed as a social ideal—except for sectors of the population deemed overloaded with criminal elements. For them, the prescriptions administered were narrowed legal rights, tougher police methods, more prisons, and dramatically expanded incarceration. For most Americans, the state should be weak; for the dangerous classes, the state would be exceptionally strong. This was big-government conservatism.
Regarding questions of culture, Reaganism was Janus-faced—now traditionalist, now libertarian. The Reaganite achievement in cultural terms, therefore, could not satisfy the entire movement. Reagan himself had promised a return to what he termed traditional moral values. By this measure, his accomplishment was slender. In 1990, his country was less traditional, and not more moral, than it had been in 1980. But Reagan himself embodied the divided mind of conservatism on cultural matters. His admiration of unfettered wealth was the instinct that echoed and amplfied throughout American culture during the 1980s. The cultural mood of the 1970s, with its nod toward the virtues of simple living and its cultivated homespun populism, gave way to an emphasis on glitz and glamour. Some Americans were repulsed by the sybaritic aspect of 1980s culture. In the late 1980s, the un.tness of the contemporary rich for social leadership became a widely heard theme, fodder for satire in fictions like The Bonfire of the Vanities and for outrage in non.ction works like The Politics of Rich and Poor, an analysis by the conservative strategist Kevin Phillips published in 1990. Yet the high status of wealth would survive this time of testing, to receive fresh boosts in the 1990s and beyond—from many Democrats as well as Republicans.
The United States was, and remained, a fiercely proud and immensely powerful country, but from the 1970s onward, many Americans feared an inevitable decline both in their nation’s position in the world and in the possibilities of upward mobility within American society. Addressing the first of these concerns, Reagan embraced both pride and power with an unreserved strength and clarity that made him a patriotic icon, one with resonance beyond the limits of party. Addressing the second, he stirred Americans by retrieving deeply familiar rhetoric of boundless aspiration and personal ambition. This was the two-pronged meaning of his invocation of Paine’s assurance, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Reagan’s success in linking political conservatism to the cause of national revitalization through military strength, on one side, and to the idea of individual self-betterment, on the other, explains why conservatives and Republicans, a quarter-century after his presidency ended, continued to treat Reagan as their political touchstone. This success also explains why many others remained somewhat awestruck by Reagan as a political figure, even if they disagreed strongly with the political stands he took. Nothing wins like winning.
To Reagan’s most devoted conservative admirers, he was the hero who tamed American politics and Soviet power. In 2001, Peggy Noonan, who had been Reagan’s most talented speechwriter, rebuked Reagan’s critics: “They called him stupid. They called him warlike. They called him unsophisticated, lazy, a mere actor, a cornball blowhard who believes in a mythic America that never existed.” She herself, she recalled, had once agreed with some of these criticisms, at least to a degree. But now, she wrote, “We were wrong.” Three years before Reagan’s death in 2004, his greatness seemed unquestionable to Noonan. Many other conservative writers agreed, and book-length encomiums to Reagan became a lucrative branch of American publishing starting in the early 2000s. As Noonan noted, virtually all Republican presidential aspirants in 2000 (as afterward) claimed to be Reagan’s political reincarnation.
But for all of Reagan’s achievements, he was not, despite his admirers’ seemingly limitless praise, a great man. He scorned far greater men, like King and Mandela, who knew real danger as they led their peoples’ struggles against lethal tyrannies. Reagan lacked the capacity to recognize the moral stature of such figures, and in this he surely embodied the spirit of Reaganism as a movement. This was not solely a matter of race. Reagan and his followers were deeply suspicious of movements of, by, and for the underprivileged.
Reagan was not a stupid man, but he sometimes took refuge in stupid lies. He was little troubled by the mass killings committed during his presidency by the Central American regimes that he armed and defended to the hilt. Reagan aggressively advanced grisly counterinsurgency policies in order to prevent socialists from taking power in small countries of no strategic importance to the United States. Reaganite efforts to justify this violent course of action in human terms now appear terribly weak, even detached from reality. In An American Life, Reagan explained his views concerning the conflict in El Salvador. “Yes, it is true there were extreme right-wing outlaw elements in that country, including members of the government security forces, who were guilty of flagrant and grave human-rights abuses,” he wrote. “But the brutal pro-Marxist rebels who were slaughtering innocent peasants, burning and pillaging their crops, destroying electrical power lines, and blowing up dams in their campaign to wrest control of the country were infinitely more barbaric.” Yet three years later, the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador compiled accounts of twenty-two thousand atrocities committed in that country between 1980 and 1991, and revealed, in its thorough and impartial report, that testimony by Salvadorans attributed almost 85 percent of this violence to the regime and its death squads, and only about 5 percent to the insurgents.
The grieving families, the mounds of corpses: these meant nothing to Reagan and his cadres, and were for nothing. The ordeal of the peoples of El Salvador and Guatemala—and that of Nicaragua, where Reagan stubbornly waged indirect war against the Sandinistas—played no role in ending the Cold War, a marvelous development that transpired when Reagan, in his singular change of heart, turned his back on his whole political history and embraced superpower diplomacy and the concepts of détente. The peoples to the south were left to bury their dead. In the United States, Americans were freed of the fear with which they had lived for decades, the fear of a terrible nuclear war.
As Reagan walked into his figurative sunset, his people knew that they inhabited a colossus bestride the world. Their national life was now one of power and debt, of opulence and struggle, of realities both born of conservatism and beyond conservatives’ imagining. Despite conservatism’s limitations, in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, Reaganism would remain part of the political air Americans breathed. The tangible achievement of Reaganism was sometimes distorted or obscured by the simple antigovernment rhetoric of conservatives. Not a destruction of government, but a shift in the balance of the state’s burdens, financial and punitive, was that achievement’s substance. Yet perhaps Reaganism’s deeper accomplishment was intangible, a triumph of ideas. In the realm of political legitimacy, Reagan and his followers damaged the cause of government action on behalf of the less fortunate, and added lasting ballast to the presumption in favor of leaving inequality intact. In sum, they reordered the relationships that de.ne government’s essence: whom it taxes, whom it enriches, whom it seeks to protect, and on whom it uses force. Few leaders or movements in their country’s history had secured more.