The Last Laugh? Wait for the History Books
Listening to the endless encomiums to Ronald Reagan, many from people who once derided him, I couldn’t help wonder whether some day George W. Bush would receive similar tributes from his current enemies. It seems unlikely, even to me, but then it seemed pretty unlikely 20 years ago that the Gipper would ever win widespread acclaim as one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history.
It is bracing to open a book such as Dinesh D’Souza’s Reagan biography and be reminded of what was actually said about him during his presidency. The man now eulogized as a giant was famously derided as an “amiable dunce” by Democratic elder Clark Clifford.
Robert Wright of the New Republic said he was “virtually brain-dead”; Nicholas von Hoffman called him an “unlettered, self-assured bumpkin” in Harper’s Magazine; and Kevin Phillips complained he was trying to govern “based on maxims out of McGuffey’s Reader and Calvin Coolidge.”
Barbara Ehrenreich titled her book about the 1980s “The Worst Years of Our Lives.” Reagan was also accused of being a “reckless cowboy” and a “simple-minded ideologue” (Mark Hertsgaard) who was leading the nation toward nuclear annihilation.
These accusations were not particularly controversial among the chattering classes in the 1980s; they were (and in some quarters remain) received wisdom. The only wonder among the sophisticates was how Reagan fooled so many people into supporting him. Then-Rep. Patricia Schroeder provided the explanation when she said he was the “Teflon president” to whom no charge ever stuck. Garry Wills wrote that Reagan “cast a spell” that drew Americans into a “vast communal exercise in make- believe.”
What was the source of all this animus? Part of it was personal: Reagan, a C student at Eureka College and a B-movie actor, couldn’t win the respect of A-list intellectuals. They thought he wasn’t up to running the country. But mostly it was ideological. Reagan’s ideas flouted the intellectual fashions of his day.
When he came to office in 1981, the consensus was that the nation was suffering from “malaise.” The best that could be hoped for, the smart set believed, was to strike an accommodation with the Soviet Union and to lower our economic expectations. Reagan scoffed at such pessimism. He set about reviving the economy with tax cuts and consigning the “Evil Empire” to the ash heap of history by raising defense spending and supporting anti-communist rebels abroad. He was not content to manage problems. He wanted to transcend them. And he did.
The similarities with George W. Bush are uncanny. As Reagan was, he is thought to be an intellectual lightweight too stupid to understand how ruinous his policies are. He is getting as much grief as Reagan did for not bowing to the logic of “deterrence” and “containment.” Reagan’s alternative was the Strategic Defense Initiative; Bush’s, the doctrine of preemption. Reagan was derided for his stark depiction of the Cold War as a “struggle between right and wrong, good and evil.” Bush uses similar language in the war on terrorism -- and earns similar derision.
On domestic policy, Bush, as Reagan was, is attacked for opposing abortion, appointing hard-line judges and generally catering to the Christian right. He is also pilloried for running up massive deficits with his tax cuts that supposedly favor the rich.
It is possible to make too much of the comparisons with Reagan, not all of which work in Bush’s favor. Reagan was a better communicator, with a readier wit and more developed political convictions worked out over his many decades in public life.
Also, some of the similarities do not cast either man in a flattering light. Both were hands-off managers who were hurt by the feuding between their secretaries of Defense and State. Presidential inattention helped produce scandals such as Iran- Contra and Abu Ghraib.
Yet, by and large, Bush is achieving impressive results with his Reagan-esque approach: The economy is booming, and terrorists are on the run in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is unlikely that Bush will win the immediate vindication that Reagan achieved when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. He is closer to the beginning than the end of a long struggle. But Bush still has a good chance of winning unexpected cheers in a few years’ time -- as long as he doesn’t heed the jeers directed his way at the moment.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.