To be honest, I’ve had a hard time getting excited about the Ronald Reagan Centennial. I feel that I should write something, because I’ve written a post for Ronald Reagan’s birthday every year since I started blogging. But I’m not really sure what to say this year, plus, I’ve been having difficulty writing lately—in terms of communicating what is on my mind. One reason that I’ve written so many posts on biblical criticism lately (in addition to that of giving myself a study guide as I prepare for my Bible comp retake) is that it is so abstract: I don’t have to write about my feelings, which has been hard for me. Case in point: my rambling posts about church! I want to say something, but I’m not sure how to say it!
But, in this post, I’ll just write. What’s difficult about a post such as this is that it concerns politics—and there are so many facts and figures out there, among all sides. I can say that Reagan’s policies resulted in the stagnation of wages among working people—after all, didn’t you see the graph in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (see Moore’s documentation here)? But conservatives can then come back and cite statistics that say that there was upward economic mobility during the Reagan Administration (see here), and that good, high-paying jobs were created when Reagan was President. Some blame Reagan for the stagnation of wages and the decline of manufacturing jobs over the past couple of decades, whereas others claim that such a situation would have existed without Reagan’s policies; I’ve even read conservatives who defend free trade by saying that there is no decline of manufacturing jobs in the United States! So how do I know who’s right?
My favorite documentary about Reagan is not a hagiography, but it’s the American Experience one, made by PBS. I wish that I could post a link to the actual documentary, but here is the transcript. There are so many scenes in that documentary that move me to tears, but my favorite line is perhaps this one (narrated by David Ogden Stiers, which appeals to me, a Dead Zone fan):
“He was America’s most ideological President in his rhetoric yet pragmatic in his actions.He believed in balanced budgets but never submitted one. He hated nuclear weapons but built them by the thousands. He would write checks to a poor person as he cut the benefits of many. He united the country with renewed patriotism. But his vision of America alienated millions. He preached family values but presided over a dysfunctional family.”
That’s a Reagan who appeals to me—a well-intentioned person, a man of high ideals, and yet a man of contradictions. He was good, but he was far from perfect.
The documentary covers the rise, fall, and then rise again of the Reagan Presidency. The end of Part 1 is quite gut-wrenching, as we see America in a recession, as well as protests against nuclear weapons, as people question the wisdom of Reagan’s Cold War policies. Then, Part 2 is about the economic resurgence (“it’s morning again in America”), Reagan’s brave commitment to standing up to Communism, even after he was shaken by the movie, The Day After, and the end of the Cold War. I hope that Obama’s Presidency will also have a happy ending, as tough as things are right now.
But there are things about Ronald Reagan that do not set right with me. I think of a passage on pages 439-440 of Lou Cannon’s President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Tip O’Neill recalled something that Reagan said at a January 28, 1986 bipartisan leadership meeting:
“But what set O’Neill off was Reagan’s assertion that the unemployed could get jobs if they really wanted them. ‘I’m told about the fellow on welfare who makes phone calls looking for work,’ O’Neill recalls Reagan as saying. ‘On the third day they offer him a job, and he hangs up. These people don’t want to work.’ This angered O’Neill. ‘Don’t give me that crap,’ he said. ‘The guy in Youngstown, Ohio, who’s been laid off at the steel mill and has to make his mortgage payments—don’t tell me he doesn’t want to work. Those stories may work on your rich friends, but they don’t work on the rest of us…'”
I got a similar impression of Reagan when I watched the Showtime miniseries, The Reagans. I’m sure it’s a mixture of fact and fiction, but what disturbed me most was not the controversial portrayal of Reagan’s record on AIDS, as pathetically one-sided as that was (see here). Rather, it was the portrayal of Reagan as someone who was promoting himself, and who served as a tool for rich conservatives, who schemed in smoke-filled rooms, searching for someone who could advance their interests. That was kind of a jolt for me, one who has long heroized Reagan. The part about Reagan violating antitrust laws as an actor and then saying that he didn’t remember also did not set right with me. (And I’ve read about this in books about Reagan.) And it appeared that Ron and Nancy were somewhat insular—it was the two of them, and then there was everyone else. Actually, a number of people have said that this was the case, including some of Reagan’s children. It’s like the Reagans were primarily looking out for the Reagans!
And yet, part of Reagan’s charm was that he didn’t appear to take himself too seriously. Lou Cannon said in one of his books that what set Reagan apart from other actors was that he was not conceited: he offered suggestions on how to portray a scene that did not necessarily put the spotlight on him.
But, back to the Cannon quote on Reagan and Tip O’Neill. I often picture the Reagan Presidency as what it would be like if your favorite conservative uncle was in office. You may hear from your conservative friends and relatives that the poor are poor because they don’t really want to work—that they can succeed, if they really want to do so. Well, imagine them as President, and that may have been what the Reagan Presidency was like!
At the same time, it wasn’t as if Ronald Reagan couldn’t empathize with the poor. He remembered the days when he himself was poor during the Great Depression. He could make fun of welfare queens in one speech, and in another speech say that many on welfare are trapped in the system—that they don’t really want to be on welfare. He could write a check for a poor, struggling family, and send that family another check when it framed the first one. Which side of Ronald Reagan was stronger? I’d say it depended on the situation. As Governor, he (along with state legislators) crafted a tough yet compassionate welfare reform bill. As President, he just cut social services for the poor, and poverty did not appear to disturb him that much.
His Cold War policy was rooted in compassion, for he did not like that so many people in the world were in bondage to Communist systems. But there were innocent casualties of his Cold War policies. The Contras wrecked havoc on Nicaragua, killing innocent people. Did Reagan have much of an alternative? Could he have defeated Communism in ways that did not entail siding with sordid people? I don’t know.
I listened to two speeches yesterday. One was a speech that Reagan gave in 1948 as a Democrat, and the the other was his famous 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing.” Both were characteristic Reagan—good arguments, mixed with some anecdotes, some of which were only partially true. But I found myself identifying more with the Democrat Reagan—who criticized Republicans for undermining labor, for inflation, for presiding over a period of rising corporate profits and stagnating wages for workers, for cutting taxes primarily for the wealthy, and for reducing school lunch programs. This Reagan championed affordable housing and civil rights. The 1964 Reagan had good things to say—I especially liked when he praised Barry Goldwater for his fair policies towards labor—but his appeal to freedom and less government reminded me of a tea party speech—albeit one that was polite and gentle (unlike the rants that I see from tea partiers on TV, and that I read online). The conservative definition of freedom as “government keep out” does not resonate with me that much nowadays, especially since I feel that it results in social Darwinism, which doesn’t make me feel all that free!
These are my rambling Reagan reflections for today! Enjoy the Reagan Centennial, if you feel so inclined! Also, enjoy the Superbowl!