June 09, 2004

Reagan at the Rotunda

I watched the moving state funeral last night in London. Most European news networks (the Beeb, Euronews, ITN, etc) covered the entire event live.

These Euro-news outlets understood, and frequently commented upon, how this state funeral was the most important Presidential memorial in America since JFK's.

In part, we can thank Nancy Reagan for this (reports indicate she was heavily involved in the planning--such as the riderless horse with the boots mounted in the stirrups).

To this day, she continues to assist her husband vis-a-vis the restorative role he played in buttressing the Presidency of the United States. It had been buffeted by many blows--through JFK's assassination, Nixon's impeachment, Carter's 'malaise.'

As Cheney put it well in his moving remarks at the Rotunda:

"We think back with appreciation for the decency of our 40th president and respect for all that he achieved. After so much turmoil in the '60s and '70s, our nation had begun to lose confidence. And some were heard to say that the presidency might even be too big for one man. That phrase did not survive the 1980s."

Indeed, it didn't.

The Challenger Disaster

All this brought back another memory for me too. My father, a retired career diplomat, had been seconded to the White House's press office during the Reagan years. He happened to be with President Reagan and his top staff when the Challenger shuttle blew up.

A White House phographer had captured the moment when they all first heard of the tragedy. As is often the case, all those photographed would later get the picture as a memento of their service to the President.

My father had the picture blown up and it had found its way into our Bethesda basement. On breaks from school, I would often go downstairs and linger over that picture.

And on the facial expressions worn by men like Don Regan, Larry Speakes, Bud Macfarlane. And, of course, the President's--as they all stared at the breaking news reports on television.

All individuals were moved, of course. But Don Regan, say, still looked more imperious than saddened. And you could see other senior aides (a Bud Macfarlane or Larry Speakes, for instance) distraught, to be sure, but also thinking through the political implications of the disaster.

Only the President (and, of course, I like to think my father too) appeared just flat out devastated. But it was really Reagan's face that stood out all on its own.

Why does his visage in that photograph remain so firmly etched in my memory now a decade and a half later?

Because his sadness was so genuine, so simple, so real.

This was such a decent man; such a modest, self-effacing, gentle man.

Would that more of us were like him.

The Importance of Conviction

He was too, of course, a man of bed-rock firmly held conviction. He realized two main things: 1) that too many encroachments of emasculating statism were suffocating the creative and economic power of the American polity; and 2) that the Soviet Union was a bona fide evil empire that needed to be confronted square on.

In large part because of his foreign and economic policies, the Soviet Union met its end and a huge bull market was unleashed.

He was President during my boarding school days up at Andover. We used to pass around the dorm, like hot cakes, books that defined the era like Barbarians at the Gate and Liar's Poker (my initial Trotskyite affectations, beleguered Leon slaying Stalinist distortions of noble Marxist dogma and such, were in remission by senior year).

Whatever you make of the capitalist excesses described in the books, entire industries like private equity and complex mergers and acquisitions work wouldn't even have existed, in their present form, were it not for Reagan.

He ushered in an era of efficiency, daring, and ingenuity into our financial system.

We had been unshackled, to a fashion.

See the Bull soar!

And, of course, Reagan is a hero to the tens of millions who dwelled in the gray, decaying zones of Bucharest, Warsaw, Sofia.

These populations are now in the process of being integrated into a whole and free Europe. Reagan's actions (and Bush 41's gingerly handling of German reunification) are the main reasons for this unprecedented peace and prosperity.

A storied Continent, torn asunder, had been reunited.

A Mixed Legacy

Some say he was just an empty-headed, index-card reading Teflon President.

One whose economic policies led to large deficits, who didn't care about the poorest among us.

The deficits were indeed staggering (Clinton's Rubinesque economic policies the Thermidor vis-a-vis some of the Reagan revolution's excesses on this score).

The apocryphal "ketchup" classified as vegetable tale pointed to the real disquiet of many regarding his alleged disinterest in the inner-city poor.

And, yes, there is some truth to all this.

But still, by the end of his term, more Americans had more money in their pockets and more jobs to go to (and not just the Sherman McCoys of the world).

To be sure, his legacy will likely also prove more complex than is commonly perceived.

Huge military spending made him somewhat of a de facto Keynesian rather than an unadulterated supply-sider.

Beirut was a painful fiasco. Iran-Contra a blow to our foreign policy credibility.

No, this was not a perfect man. Not some deity.

A Debt of Gratitude

But he was a uniquely American phenomenon with two great insights: 1) robustly beat back Communism, a defunct ideology; and 2) roll-back stagnating statism.

He was on the right side of these two big, critical issues; and his gutsy purposefulness secured victory on both of these key fronts.

He is responsible for the great, largely peaceful years (carnage in Rwanda and the Balkans aside) we were privileged to live in from the fall of the Berlin Wall through to September 11th.

We are in a new era now, of course, faced with unprecedented perils presented by the specter of mass casualty terror.

But we still inhabit a planet that remains, largely, shaped by Ronald Reagan.

Europe and Asia continue to move towards liberalization of their economies (Russia and China included).

Communism is widely percieved as a dead ideology.

Robust foreign policies brought to bear against forces of evil (those who would indiscriminately and purposefully kills millions) remain of utmost import.

Yes, we owe this man a deep debt of gratitude indeed.

Posted by Gregory at June 9, 2004 08:57 PM
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