February 06, 2006

Reagan's Birthday

Ronald Reagan was born 95 years ago today.

I try to explain to people - especially my kids - what Reagan meant. When I was my daughter's age, Jimmy Carter gave the "malaise" speech. When I was their age, I was looking ahead to a lifetime of accepting that the world could be blown to smithereens on thirty minutes' notice, in a nation that was, as Merle Haggard put it, "rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell". Hostages in Iran; the Middle East controlled by despots (to whom we sent a shocking amount of money); a dismal time and place.

Of course, the left's orthodoxy was still firmly imprinted in my brain in 1980; I believed that Reagan was at best an uncaring patrician curmudgeon; at worst, his attitude toward the Russians was going to get us all killed. I was three weeks too young to vote in 1980 - but if I had, I wouldn't have voted for Reagan. (I also would have ditched Carter, and voted John Anderson, a "moderate" Republican that would have made Arne Carlson blanche).

Well, the propaganda hasn't changed. But the world sure has.

Reagan didn't bring down the USSR - but he catalyzed the events and inspired the people that did. He didn't bring back the economy singlehandedly - but he extinguished the malaise of the mind and the crushing impediments of the tax code that had held it at bay. He didn't relaunch democracy around the world - but he left a nation in his wake that believed it could be done.

He was a "dumb guy" - said his critics - who was smarter than his critics.

I'm a speech geek, of course. And Reagan was the last great American political orator. His "A Time For Choosing, the Challenger disaster speech, his speech at Pointe Du Hoc, and of course the Brandenberg Gate speech are just the highest points of a career full of the greatest speeches in American history.

Reagan changed the world. "But into what?", some lefties will snark.

A much better place than I grew up in.

The wall is gone.

The missile silos that dotted the northern plains are largely gone - unneeded in a world with only one superpower:

Oh, the descendants of the same midgets that cast their stones at Reagan twenty years ago will be carrying on the work of their parents.

Y'know - the parents that voted for Jimmy Carter, and are trying to do it again.

Happy Birthday, Ronald Reagan.

Posted by Mitch at February 6, 2006 06:33 AM | TrackBack

"They counted on America to be passive. They counted wrong."

Posted by: Tony B at February 6, 2006 06:09 AM

The State Dept and all the other 'experts' wanted Reagan not to use the 'tear down this wall' line in the Brandenberg speech. They kept removing it from the text and he kept putting it back in.

Posted by: rps at February 6, 2006 08:23 AM

On the other hand, retreating from Beirut after the bombing of the Marine barracks and selling arms to "moderate" Iranians doesn't look all that smart in retrospect. Or at the time.

Posted by: angryclown at February 6, 2006 09:08 AM

Take a look at a modern map and try to locate the U.S.S.R.

Posted by: Kermit at February 6, 2006 09:23 AM

Wish I could! My favorite map store was at the World Trade Center.

Posted by: angryclown at February 6, 2006 09:35 AM


Nobody said Reagan was infallible; that's the province of people like our good neolib friend, the Florida attorney, with (for example) his near-deification of the 42nd President.

When you swing for the fence, you're going to get some strikes. Roosevelt swung for the fence, struck out on the Depression (he probably prolonged it) and internment and any number of other things - but he got a couple of homers that he'll be remembered for, and justifiably so.

Iran was a strikeout. So was Beirut. However, he got a stand-up triple against O'Neill on the economy, and ended the game with a game-winning bases-loaded four-bagger against Gorbachev. That's what history will remember. Justifiably so.

Posted by: mitch at February 6, 2006 09:41 AM

I can agree with you on most of that. But it's worth pointing out that Reagan planted seeds that have borne some nasty fruit in the past decade: to the two blunders named above, add bolstering Saddam and arming Islamic fanatics against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. These last two are more complicated, but they contributed to the mess we're currently in.

Of course to take a slightly longer view, you could blame a Roosevelt - Kermit, for restoring the Shah in '53.

'Zat the genesis of your moniker Kerm? Or is it the bug-eyed felt frog?

Posted by: angryclown at February 6, 2006 10:05 AM

"Reagan planted seeds that have borne some nasty fruit in the past decade: to the two blunders named above, add bolstering Saddam and arming Islamic fanatics against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan."

True, as far as it goes; they dealt with a short-term crisis in a way that exacerbated the long-term one.

"These last two are more complicated, but they contributed to the mess we're currently in."

Again, true as far as it goes; both situations involved doing what US foreign policy had done ever since Theodore Roosevelt; prop up friendly or convenient (often bad) tyrants against unfriendly (generally worse) ones. Reagan didn't invent realpolitik; he didn't control the past (the installation of the Shah whose reign ended so disastrously) or the future (the development of Wahhabism into a political movement, which was hardly on the radar 25 years ago). His goal was to roll back the Soviets (which supporting the Muj did) and contain the Iranians (which he did). Two missions accomplished. One problem exacerbated; diplomatic whack-a-mole.

I'd have to ask; what alternatives were there? Leave the Soviets unmolested in Afghanistan? Let the Iranians play chicken in the Straits of Hormuz? I no more claim clairvoyance on Reagan's part than I do infallibility.

Posted by: mitch at February 6, 2006 10:28 AM

One did not have to be clairvoyant to know, in the '80s, that radical Islam was a threat. Reagan had examples close at hand: the murder by truck bomb of the Marines and the fundamentalist Shia government in Iran. Nor that Islam was often the banner under which local populations unite to defeat Western occupiers - the Mahdist slaughter of Gordon's forces at Khartoum in the 19th century, the Algerian war against France - not to mention the Soviets' disastrous occupation of Afghanistan. It ain't - and never was - rocket science to understand that money, arms and power given by the U.S. to Middle Eastern regimes would someday be turned against us.

Posted by: angryclown at February 6, 2006 10:44 AM

Actually, the "genesis of my moniker" was my mom and dad. I'm the youngest of three and they are Kevin and Kathleen, respectively. It being the Faboulous Fifties, they had to go with a K.
That cute little froggy on the Jimmy Dean show may have been a subliminal inspiration.

Posted by: Kermit at February 6, 2006 10:49 AM

So by the Clown's logic we should cease all military support for Pakistan.

Posted by: Kermit at February 6, 2006 11:03 AM

Great post, Mitch.

Viva la Reagan Revolucion!

Posted by: Badda-Blogger at February 6, 2006 12:00 PM

AngryClown, I would be more inclined to take your point seriously, that "One did not have to be clairvoyant to know, in the '80s, that radical Islam was a threat," if you had evidence that others were raising the alarm at the time. I'm old enough to remember the period as one in which Middle East violence was considered a regional issue, aimed at Israel and addressed through countless peace missions to the area. Other policies extended from that. And let's not ignore the Soviet threat within the region, which also colored our relationships with Arab states.

To what extent is your take of the period one of hindsight?

Posted by: kb at February 6, 2006 12:15 PM

Happy Birthday Ronnie!!!

Interestingly enough... Also Happy Birthday Bob Marley!!!

Posted by: PC at February 6, 2006 03:01 PM

King brings up something I'd unaccountably neglected.

"And let's not ignore the Soviet threat within the region, which also colored our relationships with Arab states."

In the seventies and eighties, the boogeyman wasn't a Moslem student driving a hijacked plane or a van with a nuke or a suicide vest; while all three were acknowledged possibilities, the biggest worries that anyone acknowledged were:
* Syrians (and, until '77, Egyptians) in Russian-built tanks bulldozing Israel
* Iranians closing the Straits of Hormuz, cutting the West off from 2/3 of the world's oil.
* Russians getting a base within shooting distance of the Straits, either by cession (the USSR had *many* clients in the region), alliance (the USSR made entrees to Iran and India - the Indian Navy used Russian ships for many years) or conquest. This was a credible threat, which would have allowed the USSR an incredible amount of control over the West.

In the meantime, Islamic unrest was seen in some respects as a *friend* of the US - in Afghanistan, obviously, but as a lever against the USSR in the Stans, were even 30 years ago the Reds were worried about anti-Soviet, pro-Islamic turmoil long before we *seriously* considered it a threat.

Take Reagan and the GOP out of it; say you're the President in 1980. The "cold" enemy is the USSR. They're in a war in Afghanistan, one they're engaging in large part to pacify the Stans. Knowing what we knew then, what do you do?

Posted by: mitch at February 6, 2006 03:23 PM

Reagan was a great president, without a doubt, probably the greatest I'll ever see in my lifetime. I'm proud to have voted for him twice. I can still remember the feeling of glee and elation whan I saw the networks call state after state for Reagan back in '80.
However I think that conservatives tend to underplay the offensiveness of the Iran/Contra affair. The constitution says that congress controls the purse strings for good reason; in the 18th & 19th century monarchs would often bypass their parliaments to get the funds they needed for military adventures (this is how Bismarck built the German Empire) and we do not want a US President to be tempted to use undemocratic means to pursue his foreign policies.

Posted by: Terry at February 6, 2006 06:34 PM

Iran/Contra wasn't pretty, but it wasn't very much Reagan's fault. He gave orders to subordinates which they carried out beyond legal limits without his authorization. By all accounts he was unware of the real nature of the scandal until after it blew up. While this was unpleasant, the Democrats blew the proper criminal response by politicizing their investigation. Still, it wasn't surprising that something like Iran/Contra could happen given his hands off management style (which was light-years ahead of Carter's meddling in every detail).

While I agree with AC that Beirut was a serious blunder on RR's part, I would challenge him as to what else RR could have done. The Democrats were in control of Congress and were trying to surrender to anyone in sight at the time, which would have made it difficult to get approval to do anything other than withdrawl. The context of much of RR's presidency was trying to manage leftist desires to appease the USSR: remember all the pressure for SALT II, the Pershing missle debacle, the initial hue and cry from the Dems on Grenada, etc? And at the time the Arabs were Soviet clients.

Posted by: nerdbert at February 6, 2006 09:30 PM

Mitch, I was like you on Reagan in 1980, and voting for him in 1984. Despite the choruses of "Yes-buts", his stature will only grow. He, and The Iron Lady and John Paul the Great...quite a three to have been alive at the same time. I'm glad to have seen it. PS See you've been to visit me, thanks.

Posted by: Kerry at February 6, 2006 09:50 PM