This past Sunday marked the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, a day all the more festive for its coincidence with the Super Bowl. The NFL prepared a special three-minute segment fawning over the life of Ronald Reagan (and making a compelling case for his canonization) to air during the game. Festivities in California featured an appearance from Newt Gingrich and a speech by Sarah Palin, worshipped by many Americans as Reagan’s ideological successor. Recently, a column by Barack Obama commemorating Reagan’s legacy appeared in USA Today. Across the political spectrum, Americans seem nostalgic for the days of old, of “morning in America.”
Despite falling short of the sky-high approval ratings some other presidents acheived, Reagan’s brand never really sunk to the depths reached by other presidents either. Even in mid-1983, when the Reagan recession had bottomed out, he still maintained a 40 percent approval rating. Reagan’s cowboy persona captured the American heart. But during his presidency, few would have imagined that Reagan would go down in history as the intellectual exemplar of conservatism. No one anticipated the undying loyalty that Republicans profess for his political ideology, a loyalty so strong that at the recent debate among candidates vying for the chair of the RNC, several respondents were at a loss when asked to name a conservative they admired “aside from President Reagan.” That didn’t stop Reince Priebus, the winner of the chairmanship, from claiming that his favorite book was the Reagan Diaries.
So how did he do it? How has Ronald Reagan, despite presiding over average and disproportionate economic growth alongside a skyrocketing deficit, managed to go down in public memory as not only one of the best presidents ever, but as the ideal conservative, regularly lauded by everyone from Sarah Palin to Barack Obama? Though called an “amiable dunce” by longtime Democratic adviser Clark Clifford, Reagan has since been vindicated by the vast majority of the American public.
Indeed, a dunce he was. Reagan pioneered the gaffe we know as the Bushism, alleging, among other things, that the Contras — a Nicaraguan paramilitary force known to torture civilians — was “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers.” He opined that the eruption of Mount St. Helens probably released more sulfur dioxide than 10 years of automobile emissions. His two terms saw the debt-to-GDP ratio — which shows to what extent growth accompanies spending — spike 9, then 11 percent, a dismal performance to be topped only by the Bushes. For all the money Reagan dumped into the military-industrial complex and despite all the supposedly burdensome regulation and excessive taxation he took off the shoulders of the wealthy and the management class, job growth wasn’t that high, either. It rose a lackluster average of 2.1 percent per term.
But forget the numbers; Reagan spun a great narrative. Never before had Americans been so united than in disdain for overblown threats: welfare queens, unions and communists. Reagan’s tales of his hardscrabble youth, the hard work that got him to Hollywood, and his ascent to the White House captivated Americans, convincing us that this was a man whose words we could trust. But for all their allure, his words were empty. The welfare queen? She never existed. Unions? On the skids for decades. Communism? Crumbling under its own largess.
But today Americans long for that narrative, however illusory. The people growing up to face the “morning in America” during the Reagan era are the long-term unemployed of today. We’ve paid so much attention to the narrative that we have forgotten what actually happened during the Reagan years. Where were the jobs during the Reagan years? What consolation is being told that “unemployment insurance is like a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders” when you’re unemployed?
As much as commentators today harp on Obama for his supposed cerebral elitism and as much as he is lambasted for being out of touch with “real America,” let us pause before hearkening back to the so-called glory days of Reagan. All Reagan had to offer were trite, glib aphorisms: the product of Reagan’s years in Hollywood and his delivery of thousands of stump speeches on General Electric’s behalf. These will not help us curtail record unemployment, massive income inequality and an under-regulated financial sector. While facing the largest economic crisis in generations, let us reflect on whom we really want to lead: the professor, or the amiable dunce?
Jack Newsham is a freshman in Morse College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.