Top of This issue Current issue
A REAGAN REDUX
Many times hindsight changes our understanding of passing events. This is not at all unusual in presidential politics. Harry Truman, the sitting vice candidate who replaced FDR ( the great, only four time elected president) with no sophisticated or any other college degree , but only the machine ward polish of St. Louis, Missouri politics, was almost a local yokel until people realized how effective he was in passing all the vital post war legislation that an ailing president really could not cope with. Truman was the butt of unwarranted humor because of some lack of poise, when in the aftershock of Roosevelts’ sudden death, sincerely, but very briefly told the then small coterie of reporters around him “Boys… start praying for me”. We now value greatly the many leadership qualities he displayed in wise legislative acts, very difficult but successful administrative and political decisions and public works achievements, restoring to our nation a sense of unified purpose and direction and national momentum. Indeed one of the most effective presidents in our rather turbulent last century. Eisenhower, too, has enjoyed somewhat of an upward bounce in public esteem as a two term president and not merely as a figurehead military hero. (Not at all like the sorrow figure that Civil War hero Ulysses Grant was, also a two term post war hero, who also held the most estimable office of President of our country.)
Of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt,(FDR), so far, ranks up there with our greatest, Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson, etc. for preserving our heritage that is still the “shining light on the hill”. The beacon of freedom and opportunity for both spiritual and material growth and well being. Ronald Reagan, our present relatively contemporary “hero” has also been gaining traction in the post presidential popularity sweepstakes With absolutely no impetus from his most unglamorous alma mater, Eureka College. But it was a level or so above the academic heights of Truman’s high school diploma. Also, his latter day political opponents contended that he must have played college football without any protective helmet, so convoluted was his political thinking. He was, indeed, a most optimistic person, stressing the hopeful side of events. Indeed he confronted the American people with an almost new word---malaise.
During the election campaign against Jimmy Carter, who was seeking re election to a second term, Carter inferred that their lack of confidence and growing fear at the deepening recession they were facing was a “crisis of confidence….a malaise that strikes at the heart and soul of our national will”. Reagan’s response was a firm rebuttal. “I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people.” Reagan was well acquainted with FDR’s political playbook and even though his “anti malaise” was not as effective as, in the depths of the great depression FDR intoned “The only things we have fear is fear itself.”
Indeed, Reagan was at heart an optimist. Not perhaps a profound thinker and pundit but with a positive outlook on human potential and his especially his own “on the job” competence. Innately, with people skills and rapport. Mostly delegating wisely many lower level jobs and thus building a sound staff around him. Carter, his opponent, was too much of a perpetual staff “kibitzer” type, , who would be tinkering around the Oval Office at midnight. Reagan slept soundly, not always informed on the detail minutiae, but well aware of the big picture and the politics and people involved. In fact, at times he was rather underrated by his detractors as the “loose cannon” or “wild cowboy”, someone whose reactions were not predictable. Just as a baseball pitchers’ lack of complete control can make his fastball ball much more fearsome, so did Reagan apparently instill much awesome respect for some of his demeanor.
During the election campaign against Jimmy Carter Reagan had been campaigning vigorously against higher taxes, high inflation but especially about the kid glove treatment the western NATO Allies were treating an insidiously expanding Soviet expansion throughout parts of Africa, an advance masked by the soothing name of détente. Gradually Yemen, Ethiopia, and other “neutral” territories felt increasing Soviet pressures and encroachment. Reagan took the détente “kid gloves” off and called the Soviets “the Evil Empire” much to the discomfort of some American peaceniks, but making our adversaries much more respectful. Indeed, on just day two of newly elected Reagan administration the infamous hostage crisis was finally resolved after almost a year’s imprisonment of 44 Americans on trumped up charges, by the hostile Iranian Mullah government. Much behind the scenes negotiations, and world wide attention, was focused on this event, an indication that the “paper tiger” U.S. super power was coming to life again.
And on the domestic front, even more significantly, almost “a shot heard round the world” was the PATCO (Professional Air Controllers Organisation) strike soon after Reagan’s first inaugural. This was the heart of the crucial core of our thriving commercial airplane flight control system. The 13,000 members walked off their jobs in August of l981, testing the unique labor support they had given Reagan in the recent election. Without heisitation, on the advice of his Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, he fired all the workers who did not return to work within forty eight hours.! Among those astonished was myself, a most recent convert from Democratic Carter ineptitude of stagflation, recession and the botched attempt at hostage rescue. To take hurriedly trained replacements for what I, and most other people, assumed were relatively skilled jobs, was indeed a daring thing .But he dismissed all those who did not return within 48 hours. I, and many others, held our breath, and Reagan, perhaps asking for some sort of expiation is quoted as saying “I’m sorry, …. …I am very sorry for them…I certainly take no joy out of this.” And he also had a valid reason---the strike was illegal. No strike against vital government services was legal. One of the many steps up the career ladder for Reagan after his movie acting days were over, was being head of the Screen Actors Guild, a somewhat relaxed labor union that was in place for the mostly very independent actors and actresses. But somehow fate was very kind, and no major—or even minor!—aviation mishap occurred. And soon the recalcitrant striking PATCO union filed for bankruptcy protection. And was Reagan, the “labor leader” , glad or sad?
Subsequent events would indicate that the heyday of labor success now was markedly curtailed. And the great and massive shift in the flow of labor southward in our country was greatly enhanced. Partly this was involved with the spread of year round air conditioning combating the stultifying humid summer months, and thus making year round living much more feasible. This compelling physical fact was greatly augmented by the economic lure of lower labor costs for business. Collective bargaining became considerably less feasible as was the prior militant stance of organized labor. Undoubtedly the Patco example was a muted call to militant labor groups to ease up on their demands. Indeed, the country began a relatively rapid recovery from the Carter recession with the tax cuts on upper bracket income. Something Reagan devoutly campaigned for. Something called the Laffer Curve came into effective play----that when you lower taxes you increase revenue because you entice more investment and growth---and jobs-- because of the healthy capitalist greed of a more favorable profit potential.
Essentially the mixture of Reagan’s tax cuts on higher incomes ---and the resulting prosperity--- and the slow but sure man made climate control of air conditioning year round, was almost enough of a renascence to lift the South to the level of the rest of the country. And we are certainly in the midst of that last giant racial step with Barack Obama as our first black president. Hopefully a last great re-integration of our society for vigorous and dynamic growth. The totally immigrant society still capable of the old fashioned concept of E Pluribus Unum.
But most likely it is on the foreign affairs front that the most conspicuous advance occurs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was the prime American opponent of the world wide scourge of the politic Nazi Fascist disease, but Ronald Reagan forty years later, in l987, in front of the wall separating East and West Berlin, ---- and thus literally the Communist and Western world, ----stood Ronald Reagan exhorting “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And thus began the implosion of this monolithic totalitarian servitude state and its Gulag. This latter is made famous by Alexander Solzhenitzen and the his world famous underground book---the Gulag Archipelago-- exposing to the world the tragically similar Soviet Russian holocaust and slavery that Stalin created. There were many disaffected, Jew and Gentile. Hitler’s sadistic actions were primarily anti semitic; Stalin had a more universal malignant thrust; Both Jew and Gentile, regardless of religion. The Berlin wall did not crumble completely till four years later. But the seeds of discontent were well sown by Reagan. Soon the Russian terms glasnost and perestroika were being openly bandied about by Mikael Kruschev, the head of the Politbureau. These terms signified the ruling regimes’ attempt at more openness and general transparency both in the general print media and more normal social intercourse. However, that old slogan seems to apply with grim persistence about not being able to “put the horse back in the barn” once the terror state was relaxed. And effective leadership and general morale became much less in evidence. Alcoholism and on the job absenteeism became quite common. Most significant was the population implosion. Abortion became the most common means of birth control. And, of greater significance, there was continuing annual population drain. More annual deaths than births. But the bottom line economically was Ronald Reagan’s tenacious anti Soviet attitude. Strategic Defense Inititative (SDI) the so called Star wars anti ballistic defense missile system, which Reagan implied the was being readied by the United States. At this point financially the Soviets gave up. They feared that the “wild cowboy” streak in Reagan would persist and they could not afford to match it, especially with the very dreary facts just cited.
And Reagan was reelected by a wide margin. Indeed, no president has ever come close---Reagin carrying 49 of the 50 states! Indeed, 18 million new jobs were created under his watch. (Under Bill Clinton, it should be noted, however, that good times exceded even those Reagin’s, and over 23 million jobs were created. And we were hovering over a balanced budget one year in his two terms of office!).
The Star Wars Intitative never worked. Missiles shooting enemy missiles down before they arrived was a costly failure. But by outspending them we won what is now heralded proudly as the thirty years Cold War. The most effective fight for freedom ever fought against tyranny with no loss of life.
There are two mini disclaimers, even in this almost completely triumphant “lived happily ever after” scenario. One is the serious events that the comprise Iran Contra scandal, in which funds from the sale of weapons to Iran could be diverted to the rebels to help them in trying to overthrow the pro communist government in Nicaragua. This had become illegal due to the Boland Amendment, passed by the Democratic controlled House of Representatives. Some legal subterfuge was employed, which Reagan disclaimed any knowledge of, committees were formed to investigate, and Reagan narrowly skirted the coils of impeachment, as Clinton endured in the Lewinsky scandal. Reagan went before the public twice to explain and deny involvement, and thus earn another admiring nickname---not that of unpredictable, errant cowboy but of the Teflon coated smiling, amiable, and yet sincere neighbor next door, perhaps caught with fingers in the cookie jar, but devoutly denying chopping down the cherry tree a la George Washington in the Parson Weems story.