6 June 2004
By Gwynne Dyer
John F. Kennedy had to wait until he was dead to have New York City’s Idlewild Airport named after him, but they renamed Washington’s National Airport after Ronald Reagan even before he died. Now that he’s gone it won’t be long before his face is on the $10 bill, and there is already a campaign to carve his likeness on Mount Rushmore. It makes sense, in a way: nobody has ever played the role of US president as well as Ronald Reagan.
In fact, he re-defined it. The man who succeeded him, the elder George Bush, was a throwback to the old political style, but both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush exude the same folksy charm that made Mr. Reagan the best-loved of former American presidents. They all made the cold-blooded political calculations that are a necessary part of partisan politics, but somehow they all managed to seem as if they weren’t.
Ronald Reagan did it best because he was a professional actor, but also because he was a genuinely nice man. A nice man with a mastery of doublethink, perhaps, but you really believed that he didn’t grasp the negative implications of his own political strategies.
When Democrats in the 1960s abandoned their traditional base among southern whites by backing civil rights, Mr. Reagan fully accepted the Republican ‘southern strategy’ of winning over those votes with coded support for segregation. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Running for governor of California in 1966, he attacked the Fair Housing Act, explaining that “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”
Yet he wasn’t a racist. He was just very good at playing the political game, and even better at persuading people (probably including himself) that he was doing no such thing. The same applied to Reagan’s tax cuts, a trend that has continued under Republican and Democratic administrations alike until the gulf between rich and poor in the United States is now wider than in any other developed country.
He truly didn’t see the links netween cause and effect in his own actions. When he talked in 1984 about “the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice,” nobody accused him of hypocrisy. They could see that he genuinely thought that any rise in the number of people sleeping on grates was the result of free choice.
Still, that only explains why Americans liked and trusted Ronald Reagan. His claim to be a great president rests on three assertions: that he won the Cold War; that he created the great economic boom of the 1980s; and that he made America (or at least white America) feel good about itself after the traumas of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, and the Iran hostage crisis.
His sunny disposition doubtless cheered Americans up, but the key factor in his success was the end of the oil crisis. The huge rise in oil prices caused by the 1973 Middle East war and the 1979 revolution in Iran ended with a steep fall in 1981, just as Reagan took office. That fuelled the economic boom and the good feeling — and it is also what ended the Cold War.
The old Soviet Union was finished long before Mr Reagan became president. Communist central planning was incompatible with a modern economy, and the Soviet economy had effectively ceased growing by the late 1960s. As a result, Soviet military spending, which tracked US spending through the 1970s, swelled in relative terms until it was absorbing 30-35 percent of the economy. High oil prices plastered over the cracks for ten years — the Soviet Union was the world’s second-biggest producer — but when the oil price collapsed in 1981, Communist rule was doomed.
It was the moderate Nixon and Carter defence budgets in the 1970s that dug the Soviet Union’s grave; Reagan’s big increases in defence spending were just flogging a horse that was already dead. Ronald Reagan’s great achievement was to figure that out for himself, with little help from the State Department and the intelligence services, and act accordingly.
He didn’t cut defence spending, which had domestic political purposes as well. He pressed on with ‘Star Wars,’ because in his own mind it really was about getting beyond the moral lunacy of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction.’ But he put huge effort into creating a civilised political relationship with the government of reformist Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.
Ronald Reagan knew One Big Thing: a mutual suicide pact is a lethally stupid idea. He probably didn’t realise that the old Soviet Union was going down fast until the very end of his second term in 1988 — the State Department didn’t get it until early 1991 — but he did know that a nuclear war would be very bad, and that you need to establish a relationship of openness and trust with your partner in the suicide pact. So we are all still here.
The period of maximum danger is when empires collapse, but we all sailed through the end of the Soviet Union without as much as a torn fingernail. Ronald Reagan’s genuine good-will and common sense was what made the happy outcome possible. He didn’t destroy the Soviet Union, but he probably saved my children’s lives. If they want to carve his face on Mount Rushmore, it’s all right with me.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“He truly…choice”;and “He didn’t…Gorbachev”)