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Ronald Reagan

In memory of a great man, I post this that I wrote last September in response to a question from Ben Randell.

Ronald Reagan is one of the most polarizing and complex figures in American history. He seems to be one of those either you love him or hate him folks.

I guess I hope that people will begin to acknowledge him (as some historians have) as being great in the sense that even FDR is, though FDR was very polarizing and complex. Both made dramatic changes to the American political system. Both were extremely popular. Both had a vision that they communicated clearly and people supported.

Following the late 60s and the 70s America was in decline (as was much of Western Europe too). We were in decline economically after years of recessions and skyrocketing inflation and the energy crises, etc. We were in decline in global influence. Communism seemed to be winning the Cold War. We had had a standstill in Korea, defeat in Vietnam and Cuba. Communism had spread to Nicauragua, Angola, Afghanistan, etc. We were outnumbered with China and the USSR both being communist great powers. The Ayatollah had just ousted a US ally in Iran and was holding American hostages. And, maybe most importantly, we were in decline in spirit. We had become pessimistic and cynical. We had fought each other during the great domestic battles of the previous decades -- civil rights, women's rights, war protests, etc. This was even reflected in religion with the rise of fundamentalism as a way to cope with this strange world that seemed to be against us on every hand.

Enter Ronald Reagan. Reagan was optimistic. He said that our greatest days were ahead of us, that they hadn't passed in the glorious post-WWII days. He spoke of a vision for the future when we would be a "shining city on a hill." This clear allusion to OT and NT prophets speaks of a city that all nations stream to because it is a place of peace and prosperity. Ronald Reagan spoke of peace, which people forget. He dreamed of a world without nuclear weapons, where we would elminate these in successive agreements with the Soviet Union. He spoke of a world where democracy and self-determination were the grand principles, where communism would be on the dust heap of history. He spoke of economic well-being and prosperity.

And this is what Ronald Reagan set out to do. He was not just a visionary, he had actual plans to make this happen, and those plans were often realistic. How to get the Soviets to negotiate on arms control? Bankrupt them. We would increase defense spending faster then they could. The Soviets would then come to the table to negotiate and we would eventually all cut back our weapons spending and eliminate the need for our weapons of mass destruction (people seem to have forgotten what the goals of some of these policies were).

How to spur the economy? Tax cuts were the answer in 1980. The highest tax bracket was still somewhere around 50%. American business had not been growing and developing and investing in new ideas. It had fallen behind the Japanese and others. Historical evidence showed that the economy could be spurred by cutting taxes. John Kennedy had created a period of economic growth in the 60s by proposing what had been, until 1981, the largest tax cut in American history.

Where Reagan was naive was that he thought he could balance the budget (something he ran on in 1980 because of the skyrocketing budgets of the previous 12 years -- we had not balanced the budget since 1968). I think he knew that shortterm the tax cuts would not balance the budget, especially with the increase in defense spending. That he was somewhat aware that the increase in defense spending required a steady hand is indicated by his choice of Casper Weinberger to be Secy. of Defense. Weinberger's previous time in government had been as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Ford administration, where he had been a strong advocated of balanced budget and restrained government spending.

The major problem for the Reagan Revolution, however, came in the form of increased domestic spending. The budget could only be held in check if domestic spending were decreased (more on this vision in a moment). But he was never able to make this happen. Congress had large Democrat majorities. In order to get his 1981 budget passed, he had to win the support of a large number of Democrats. The Democrats who did vote for the 1981 Budget were, by and large, more conservative Democrats. But, their support came with a price. Almost to a man and woman, each placed their pet spending projects in the bill. Domestic spending went up in 1981. And so the 1981 Budget was catasrophic on a fiscal level. Reagan, for years afterward, demanded that budgets be brought back in line, but he never had a willing Congress. Basically, in the 1980s we had our cake and ate it also. The Republicans got increased defense spending and tax cuts and the Democrats got their increased spending. Both parties are guilty for not compromising. One of the heroes of this period, though, is Bob Dole whose 1983 Budget deal was one of the few pieces of compromise legislation that saved us from even larger deficits and made Social Security solvent or it would have been bankrupt by now.

Why did Reagan want to cut domestic spending? It was his conviction that government had become too bloated -- that the programs of the New Deal (he had been a supporter) and the Great Society had gotten out of hand. The federal government was handling a larger share of the gross domestic product than many economist felt was good longterm. More money needed to be in the hands of private enterprise, individual consumers, and the states and cities. I truly do think that Reagan's vision was that we would have some rough years as we readjusted the economy but that in the long run once the fiscal house was back in order and prosperity had been achieved, that then we would be able to address some of our social needs, but not necessarily in the big government programs of the past. Reagan's vision was almost identical to Margaret Thatcher's. She had the advantage of a parliamentary system where she came from the legislature. So, her revolution was complete -- her total reshaping of the British economic system was achieved, whereas Reagan could never get his complete vision through Congress (like Roosevelt or Johnson had been able to do).

And each revolution (Thatcher and Reagan) was followed by a period of economic hardship. People lost jobs. There were recessions. But each of these revolutions was intended for a longterm vision. What happened longterm then? The 1980s and 1990s were the longest periods of economic growth in the histories of either two nations. Both eventually became places of great entrepeneurism. Both ended the 90s with low unemployment rates. And America had achieved budget surpluses about a decade before projections. All this despite the fact that both countries had elected leaders of the opposite party. But, the interesting fact about both Blair and Clinton is that neither repudiated the fundamental economic principles of Thatcher or Reagan. Blair ran saying that he would not roll back the economic policies of Thatcher, but would seek to use the nations new prosperity to begin to address social issues. Clinton was basically the same. He came from the Democractic Leadership Conference, a group that formed in the 80s with the goal of wresting control of the Democratic Party from its economically liberal leadership that had nominated Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis.

How to restore American global influence and bring about a world full of peaceful democracies? (note that these weren't two different things) Show a powerful and forceful leadership. Call the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire" when it is controversial to do so. Stand at the Berlin Wall and say "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" With measured use (in Libya and Granada, the only military actions of his presidency, far less than the three successive administrations and basically, along with Carter, the least militaristic periods in American military use in the entire 20th century) illustrate American military power. And work to fund anti-communist forces (admittedly, some awful mistakes were made here, though I think that much of this can be blamed directly on subordinates, but Reagan is guilty as the person on whom responsibility finally lands). The outcome? Communism was ascendant in 1980. It had collapsed by 1989. The Soviet Union ceased to exist as a state in 1991. Though Reagan was not solely responsible (Thatcher, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Woijech Jaruzelski, Andrei Sakharov, Mikhail Gorbachev, and others play hugely important roles in this world-historical series of events), he is viewed by many as the primary figure in ending the Cold War that had lasted for over 50 years, taking numerous lives and resources. His vision of a future peace was one HUGE step closer.

How to restore spirit? By achieving these other things. By exhibiting positive leadership. By great rhetorical skills. By elegance. By stagemanship. Did this succeed? In 1984 he was elected by the largest landslide in American history and his successor won in a huge landslide in 1988. In the 1990s America entered into an era of positive social change and can-do-ism that did not exist in the 1970s. Volunteerism has increased. Philanthropy has increased. In fact, the very shock that 9/11 was to the system is evidence of Reagan's success. If that attack had come in 1980 it would have been tragic and a shock, but much less of a shock to a country who had seen such a beating the previous 15 - 20 years.

Let me say one thing about this current President. He is not Reagan. He misunderstands Reagan on a fundamental level.

1) Reagan increased military spending in order to lead to a future where military spending could be cut because it would not be needed. This does not seem to be Bush's motive.
2) Reagan cut taxes because we had been in a state of economic decline, the tax burden was very high, and there need to be spur to entrepeneurism. Bush cut taxes after an economic boom, with an already light tax burden, and after a period of the greatest entrepeneurism in our history.
3) Reagan want to streamline government and the economy to bring about prosperity and to balance the budget. Bush has increased the size and spending of government more than any president since FDR. He took a budget that was already in balance and threw it back into deficits, record deficits. Unlike Reagan who fought to stop the deficits of his term and had an unwilling Congress. Bush unapologetically increases the deficit, doesn't seem to view it as a problem, and yet he has a Republican Congress. Bush also took the surpluses and prosperity that were the outcome of the Reagan Revolution (the 20 year experiment had finally paid off) and betrayed it with his demagogery and lack of vision for the future (one of Reagan's key virtues being his look ahead). Instead of using the surpluses to first pay down the debt, create a rainy day fund, and address social needs, he wasted it.
4) Bush misunderstands the use of military power. Reagan's policies were to get the Soviets to the table to negotiate. He made measured use of the military. Reagan new the power of words and relationships. I think the world feared and respected Reagan because of his strength on this issue. They do not respect Bush and do not fear him in the same way.
5) Bush does not give us a vision of a greater tomorrow. He does not make us feel that our best days are ahead. Instead, it feels as if our best days were in 1999 and that we are on the decline. He tries to scare us with threat levels and misuses religious rhetoric not to bring hope and optimism by to rally us in some jingoistic crusade that is a sorry replacement for Reagan's vision and optimism and that also betrays the outpouring of community spirit and national pride in September 2001.

Immediately after 9/11, Bush sounded something like Reagan. But then he revealed how much less of a man he is. He did not push us to use the opportunity to create a golden age of community spirit with the aim of creating a better country and a more peaceful world. This Ronald Reagan would have done.


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Scott -

This is a motherf'n treatise! Wow. I christen thee Scott P. Keaton. You must've been uncannily interested in political theory at a very young age. Either that or you were fascinated and decided to study it at some point in the last ten or fifteen years. Amazing.

I knew that you'd probably write something about Reagan after sitting in my ICCM Linux 101 class yesterday and the Nederlander sitting next to me showed me his computer screen which said "leden-something Reagan." Basically, Ronnie's dead. I thought of you.



Yesterday, as always when major world events happen, you were the first person I thought of - the first person I wanted to speak to about the death of Reagan.

I believe that the world that we grew up in should be credited to Reagan's influence. His understanding of long term goals, as you have explained very well, was remarkable. He was truly noble. It would have been interesting to have Reagan's reactions to the world as it is today. How would he have responded to 9/11? would we have ever sent troops to Iraq(either time)? How would he have felt with respect to the social revolutions domestically?

I think Reagan's defining characteristic has to be elegance. Unfortunately, that is a characteristic foreign to our current administration.



I've of course read this before. As I said then, well done.

Really for me this is the passing of the last great political figure of my lifetime. Hopefully not the final one, but the last great one. I actually remember the gas lines, and stagflation. Only thing Mom ever let me watch was the news.

Who he was, and what he believed in, has shaped my political beliefs since. And as a person that was there as the Wall was coming down, I could only reflect on what President Reagan had said just a few years prior.

But this actually was I'm sure a bit of a blessing. Even though I'm sure it makes it no easier for Mrs. Reagan.

Jacob Zimmer

I remember when Nixon died you pointed out that he was the first US president to die in our lifetime (at least adult lifetime - when did Johnson pass away?). Although Nixon resigned before I was born and I never heard anything good about him, I was saddened at the loss of an American President and moved by his funeral service. I can't say the same about Reagan.

Anyway, I haven't finished reading your post because I have to stop and make a correction/clarification: It took 3 invitations by Gorbechev to a summit meeting to discuss nuclear arms reduction before Reagan agreed to meet. There was a major shift in his attitude after that first meeting in Iceland. He went from calling the USSR the "Evil Empire" to calling them an ally. So I admire his willingness to change, but we must be clear that it was Gorbechev's multiple attempts to have a summit meeting that led to the end of the Cold War. Its shameful that Reagan took credit for Gorbechev's transforming initiative. Reagan can take credit for going along. Gorbechev gets the credit for being persistent and not giving up on him.

Scott Jones

Nope, sorry, you're wrong. Reagan's vision of a nuclear free world is clearly documented from very early in his administration (it is one thing he and Thatcher disagreed on).

Plus the Rekjavik summit was not the first Gorby-Reagan summit, Geneva was. And every historical record of the meeting says that Reagan schooled Gorbachev in the negotiations.

Jacob Zimmer

Dude, you are so wrong. I have a dozen books here that say Gorbechev kept pushing Reagan to come to a summit and he kept refusing. Of course he finally gave in.

Jacob Zimmer

I just did a quick research of Gorby online and everything I read confrims what I have already read, Gorbachev initiated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) arms limitation treaty in 1987 and of course won the Nodel Peace Prize in 1990. I know its uncool to talk bad about someone who died, and I'm not doing that. I am just saying give credit where its due and Reagan was a reluctant follower of Gorbechev's initiatives.

Scott Jones

Reagan began discussing a non-nuclear world with the NATO allies in 1981. And he and Gorbachev met in Geneva as their first summit.

It may be that in the specific Rekjavik summit (which many consider one of the high points of the Reagan presidency) Gorbachev initiated those discussions. But that is, itself, part of the success of the Reagan diplomatic strategy in regards to the Soviet Union, which he had pushed to the brink of bankruptcy so that they would come to the bargaining table.

Even yesterday I saw an interview (forgot with whom, because of the many at this point) with a Reagan biographer discussing Rekjavik and how Gorbachev came in better prepared, yet Reagan one his side in every major debate of the summit.

Clearly Gorbachev is a great man, and one of my heroes. But he'd never even have been elected General Secretary by the Politburo had Reagan not set the stage that demanded the Politburo seek a new style of leadership.

Jacob Zimmer

There are sort of two different issues here that can be split between Reagan’s first term (when the discussions were focused medium range missiles in Europe) and second term (when Gorbachev came into power). I mistakenly indicated that the first summit was in Iceland when I did mean Geneva. Sorry for the confusion. I am also sorry for turning your eulogy into a debate, but what the hell.

In Reagan’s first term he opposed the SALT treaty and the nuclear freeze campaign and initially the INF treaty at first. The proposal to eliminate all European medium range missiles came not from the US but from Germany. In 1981 millions of people protested in Bonn and other European cities leading the Germans and Dutch to propose getting rid of all, not some, but all of the missiles in Europe. National Security Advisor Richard Allen dismissed this movement as “pacifist elements in Europe.”

On October 21st 1981 at the NATO meeting in Scotland, all members supported the “zero solution,” the reduction of all medium range nuclear missiles in Europe, not half as discussed at the previous NATO meeting. All members of NATO supported this new initiative EXCEPT for Reagan’s Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger. When Weinberger and his aide Richard Pearle (now a member of Bush’s administration) toured the sites in Europe, they were told by the Germans and Dutch that they must accept the zero solution or the Europeans would refuse to deploy the missiles. Weinberger and Pearle convinced Reagan to accept the deal and choose the zero solution. Again, Reagan was the follower of a peace movement that started in Europe, not the world’s leader in arms reduction.

The USSR was reluctant to accept a zero solution until Gorbachev proposed it in Reykjavik in 1987, on the condition that the US would freeze intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Pershing missiles and the Star Wars missile defense program. Reagan refused and the summit wasn’t as productive as hoped. Eventually he changed his mind when it was clear that it was the will of the Europeans, Congress and the American people to support the freeze and not to fund Star Wars.

What annoys me is that the news this weekend is giving Reagan the credit for merely following the will of the leaders behind the scene and the people movement. Its not uncommon for the media to report only the end result and the president gets the credit for simply going along. By publicly proposing what had already been pushed by other parties, he appeared to be a leader and initiator when in fact he was a reluctant follower.

Like I said originally, give credit where it is due: Reagan should go down in history not for foreign policy that allegedly broke down the Soviet Union until they gave in to his demands (as if they were playing Chicken with nuclear missiles and the USSR gave up first), but for changing his mind when it was the right thing to do. The end of the Cold War was the result of peaceful transforming initiatives largely from Europe at first and later Gorbachev, not Reagan’s “TEAR DOWN THIS WALL” rhetoric (as if Europeans wanted the Berlin wall and were just waiting for the US to tell them what to do about it) and inaccurate media hype of Reagan as the bold American hero defeating the evil empire.

By the way, where did you pick up on the idea that the summit meetings were debates? At the time when I read the news and in everything I read now they are portrayed as meetings for discussion that resulted in comprimise, not a debate where one party comes out a winner.

Scott Jones

You are right, Reagan was not a part of the nuclear freeze movement and wanted to place the medium range missiles in Western Europe. You must remember in my original comments that his vision was of a nuclear free world but that to get there he felt that one must create an arms race that would result in a bankrupt Soviet Union. In 1980 communism seemed to be winning. And Reagan had the insight to see (or rely upon those intellectuals who saw) that the Soviet Union was barely solvent and could not withstand the arms race. Plus, Reagan may have publicly taken certain positions when you say, but those who spoke with him in private indicate his views were often ahead of the public stance (that's part of what you do in diplomacy by not laying all your cards out first).

And Reagan will be forever known as the leading figure in the collapse of communism (with those others I mentioned credited as well). Foreign policy was his big achievement whether he was the intellectual source of the ideas or not.

Scott Jones

Okay, here's an extensive section from Margaret Thatcher's memoirs (the only book I had sitting behind that would address the issue) on the Reykjavik summit:

During 1986 Mr. Gorbachev showed great subtlety in playing on western public opinion by bringing forward tempting, but unacceptable, proposals on arms control. Relatively little was said by the Soviets on the link between SDI and the cuts in nuclear weapons. But they were given no reason to believe that the Americans were prepared to suspend or stop SDI research. Late in the year it was agreed that President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev -- with their Foreign ministers -- should meet in Reykjavik, Iceland, to discuss substantive proposals.

In retrospect, the Reykjavik summit on that weekend of 11 and 12 October can be seen to have a quite different significance than most of the commentators at the time realized. A trap had been prepared for the Americans. Ever greater Soviet concessions were made during the summit: they agreed for the first time that the British and French deterrents should be excluded from teh INF negotiations; and that cuts in strategic nuclear weapons should leave each side with equal numbers -- rather than a straight percentage cut, which would have left the Soviets well ahead. They also made significant concessions on INF numbers. As the summit drew to an end President Reagan was proposing an agreement by which the whole arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons -- bombers, long-range Cruise and ballistic missiles -- would be halved within five years and the most powerful of these weapons, strategic ballistic missiles, eliminated altogether within ten. Mr. Gorbachev was even more ambitious: he wanted the elimination of all strategic nuclear weapons by the end of the ten-year period.

But then suddenly, at the very end, the trap was sprung. President Reagan had conceded that during the ten-year period both sides would agree not to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, though development and testing compatible with the Treaty would be allowed. Mr. Gorbachev said that the whole thing depended on confining SDI to the laboratory -- a much tighter restriction that was likely to kill the prospect of an effective SDI. The President rejected the deal and the summit broke up. Its failure was widely portrayed as the result of the foolish intransigence of an elderly American President, obsessed with an unrealizable dream. In fact, President Reagan's refusal to trade away SDI for the apparent near fulfillment of his dream of a nuclear-free world was crucial to the victory over communism. He called the Soviets' bluff. The Russians may have scored an immediate propaganda victory when the talks broke down. But they had lost the game and I have no doubt that they knew it (In February 1993 former senior Soviet officials confirmed precisely this point at a conference at Princeton University on the end of the Cold War). For they must have realized by now that they could not hope to match the United States in the competition for military technological supremacy and many of the concessions they made at Reykjavik proved impossible for them to retrieve.

Jacob Zimmer

Thanks for sharing.

In theory, the notion of peace through strength and the plan of eliminating weapons by increasing your buildup hoping to defeat the other guy with your threat through an accelerated arms race, is too dangerous of a game to play. In this case I think we got lucky and honestly the odds were against us. What if there had been a "shot heard around the world" or an accident or a coup or anything that might have caused one missle to be fired resulting in an automatic retaliation and thus mutual assured destruction? Its much too great a risk, especially when other options are viable.

Also, its ironic to me that US foreign policy regarding Pakistan and India is to eliminate nuclear weapons. If Reagan was right, then we should allow them to enter an arms race. Obviously the Clinton administration wasn't about to take the risk that Reagan did. Bush on the other hand, withdrew the limitation of Pakistan's nuclear testing when he wanted their cooperation to invade Afghanistan.

Thanks for the discussion. I was posting on another message board and everyone tended to agree that often a president gets all the credit and glory when something goes wrong and all the blame when something goes bad. In this particular case, it really annoys me to give credit to the man who built up nuclear weapons with eliminating them - especially when the Europeans and Gorbechev played a much larger role.

I wonder if when Gorbachev dies the headlines in Russia will read: "The man who tore the Berlin Wall down and ended the Cold War."

Eric Mariott

My biggest concern of this ordeal is whether the Republican party will use the death of a superior president and person to spearhead a surge in the campaign of an inferior man and president.

As far as history goes, well....you are right Scott..either we love him or hate him...as a child of the 80s...I will keep my thoughts and comments to myself because he is probably the only Republican president that I have or will support in my life.


The only response I have to any of this is that I was age 3 at the beginning of his presidency and age 10 at the end. I was neither interested in him as a man nor leader nor anything. I don't know anything about him as an actor (I've never seen any of his movies). I don't know much about his history as president (most US History classes I took in HS stopped with Vietnam war) other than Iran Contra scandal, Ollie North, the funniness of his senility, etc. I apologize for my ignorance and I could address all of these ills with a little (read: a lot) reading.

I've found that, ashamedly, I have great indifference about his death. As far as I'm concerned, Reagan died when he stepped out of public view. All this stuff on TV is a huge media jerk-off session that I can't wait to blow over. Let's get back to partisan politics as usual and kick Bush's ass out of the White House. Cheers.

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