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Friday, June 11, 2004
Placing Reagan’s Presidency in Perspective

By Steven Taylor @ 10:34 am

James Joyner notes that the predictable criticisms of Reagan have begun, which is reasonable. However, in reading his post and the excerpts from the various columnists, along with some similar statements I have heard and read in the last several days, I am led to the following.

(And, I would note, that I think it appropriate that I am posting this as Mr. Reagan’s funeral at the National Cathedral is beginning.)

Let’s consider the following tour down memory lane:

  • November 22, 1963: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated.
  • The 1960s saw the Bay of Pigs disaster, the Cuban Missile Crisis, a burgeoning Soviet Union, escalation in Viet Nam, a profound struggle over Civil Rights (which had an ultimately positive outcome, but clearly was hardly serene at the time), and an exploding counter-culture movement.
  • The Viet Nam War during the 1960s and 1970s becomes a major source of internal conflict in the United States to the point that President Johnson chooses not to pursue re-election. Further, the fact that the war ends, after years of fighting and tens of thousands of American deaths, in the withdrawal of US forces and the collapse of the South meant that United States military had been defeated by a third world communist dictatorship.
  • The 1960s and 1970s were decades in which the world was firmly divided into two seemingly intractable camps, which wanted the destruction of the other (and each had the nuclear arsenal to literally destroy the other and, barring Armageddon, the political will to try to win the contest known as the Cold War via other means). Scholars would write during this period that democracy and capitalism were simply choices of regime, not necessarily preferred modes of operation, and that some cultures and peoples may not really be cut out for freedom and liberty.
  • The Watergate scandal forced President Nixon to resign (after his first Vice President, Spiro Agnew had also resigned for ethical reasons). This led to the Ford Presidency-a man who had been appointed to the position, not elected, because of the aforementioned Agnew problems.
  • The 1970s were marked by a variety of economic problems. Energy was a huge issue, as were inflation, and the general health of the economy.
  • Arguably, the Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations were all failed presidencies. Yes, Johnson had substantial legislative success with Civil Rights, the Great Society and federal funds for education, but those personal triumphs were overshadowed by Viet Nam. Nixon resigned, Ford was a caretaker of the remains of the Nixon administration and was perceived as a bumbler and his pardon of Nixon sealed his fate in terms of a real chance at his own administration, and Carter was plagued by serious economic problems and a serious of foreign poliy problems capped by the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.

    This is the almost twenty-year context that preceded the Reagan administration.

    I was in elementary school during the Carter administration and middle school when Reagan was elected. However, I very distinctly remember the pallor that obscured the White House during the Iran hostage crisis, President Carter and his sweater and the need to conserve electricity (which, granted, isn’t a bad idea in and of itself, but the image of the most powerful man in the world being unable to adequately heat the White House has a certain symbolic power), and news stories about the dire state of the economy. In short: it wasn’t the happiest time in American history. It wasn’t the Great Depression, but it was a time of great discontentedness with government and politics, and one filled with profound doubt about the capacity of the United States to continue to flourish as it had.

    Into this situation came Ronald Reagan. Surely the trend dictated that he, too, should have a failed presidency mired in the great difficulties of the day. Instead, there can be no doubt that Reagan helped to change the way the citizens of the US thought about themselves and their country.

    Now, I am not saying that Reagan came to office in 1981 and rainbows and roses descended from Heaven. We had the additional, and quite serious, recession of the early 80s, the nuclear threat of the Soviet Union persisted (and the future fate of democracy remained an issue-although the global movement towards democracy and neoliberalism did starts in the 1980s), and in number of problems and imperfections persisted.

    However, if one looks at the history of the presidency from LBJ to Reagan and see what the office did to the men who occupied for it, and what accomplishments and failures that each endured, it is rather difficult to argue that the Reagan’s success was just because he had a sunny disposition, a genial fellow, or just “being at the right place at the right time.”

    Warts and all, his was a successful presidency that reshaped the debate both within the politics of the United States and around the world. For example: as someone noted the other day, Reagan’s legacy is part of the reason (a major part) of why John Kerry refused to self-identify as a “liberal". One may think that that situation is silly (and in many ways, it is), but it is still is a testament to the power of Reagan’s imprint on American politics that he redefined in the public mind the definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” and, indeed, reshaped in large measure the Republican Party, and, in turn the Democratic Party by making “Republican” an acceptable label in the South. That is not small feat. An intellectually honest assessment of his presidency can only lead to the conclusion that he had one of the most successful presidencies of the twentieth century. Indeed, the only way to avoid that conclusion is to dismiss the record and ascribe the outcomes of the 1980s to luck or to pretend like the successes never took place.

  • Filed under: US Politics
    • Fringe linked with Hail This Man, Hail
    • Outside the Beltway linked with Reagan Funeral Service
    • Blogs for Bush linked with Carnival for the Gipper
    • Blogs for Bush linked with Carnival for the Gipper

    Click here to go to the main page.


    1. Perfectly said!

      Comment by Cathy — Friday, June 11, 2004 @ 5:36 pm

    2. Think simple. Learn different.

      Comment by Adrian — Monday, July 5, 2004 @ 5:13 pm

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