Here’s to Reagan: his kind light up our political world

Anthony Painter pays tribute to Ronald Reagan; though a right-winger, one can admire him as a leader if not admire him for his politics.

In the hit 1985 time-travel blockbuster Back to the Future the veracity of Marty McFly’s claims to be from the future are tested by a doubting Dr Emmett Brown:

Emmett Brown: “Then tell me, “Future Boy”, who’s President in the United States in 1985?”

Marty McFly: “Ronald Reagan.”

Emmett Brown: “Ronald Reagan? The actor? [chuckles in disbelief] Then who’s VICE-President? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady! And Jack Benny is Secretary of the Treasury!”

And much of the world still has the same attitude. It is as unbelievable that Ronald Reagan could be president as the suggestion that George W Bush could be. That says more about us than him. Reagan was president. And he was successful.

The easy thing is to go with your political convictions in assessing the standing of a president. The left likes Kennedy and Roosevelt (Franklin); are ambivalent about Johnson (Vietnam) and Clinton (a triangulating politician and flawed man who could nonetheless make us swoon); Carter is ignored and deliberately forgotten (a better ex-president than president); Truman launched Enola Gay; and the jury is out on Obama (oh, how we crave betrayal.)

Bush, Bush, Nixon, and Reagan are generally placed in the political dock. That leaves Eisenhower: more an independent than a Republican and he called out the Military-Industrial Complex and sent the troops in to de-segregate Little Rock Central High School so had his good points.

Much of this is perfectly justifiable. With Reagan though there’s something unsatisfactory about it. There is an important contextual point that must be made: it is possible to disagree with someone politically and yet admire them as a leader. And on his own terms, Reagan was a successful leader. His record though is rightly and heavily contested.

He had two focuses for his presidency: peace and prosperity. On the economic front, he reduced tax rates across the board, he stemmed the increase in federal spending (and shifted it towards defence), de-regulated the US economy and got a grip of inflation through control of the money supply. By the time he left office the top rate of tax was 28% rather than 70%; the top rate of corporation tax was 34% rather than 48%.

Of course, deregulation had some disastrous consequences such as the savings and loans financial crisis.

Productivity increased, unemployment fell, inflation fell, but inequality increased and a federal deficit remained despite economic boom times. In 1980, Reagan had campaigned on the question:

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Watch it:

By 1984, he was proclaiming that it was morning again in America in this iconic commercial:

There are interesting parallels here in today’s British political context. Essentially, the 2015 election will be a battle between Reagan 1980 and 1984. Labour will be asking: “Are you better off now than in 2010?”; the Conservatives will wish to do a Reagan 1984. Reagan’s statue was unveiled today. His political messaging defines our own political times.

But it was his presence on the global stage that has led to his memorial in Grosvenor Square. He insisted that Mr Gorbachev “tear down this wall”:

His aggressive rearmourment is seen as being the hammer blow that broke the Soviet economic back. His promise of the “advance of human liberty” was a siren call that beckoned the Soviet Union towards the rocks. Crushed by economic power and seduced by freedom the Soviet bloc crumbled.

There is more than a dash of mythology in this popular narrative. Leon Aron contends this the conclusion that the Soviet revolution was externally caused in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Like the Arab Spring, the Soviet spring had it roots in domestic corruption. Life in an autocratic state gets you down over time. The Tunisians cried: “Dignity before Bread.” And so did the Soviets and others across Eastern Europe.

And no account of Reagan’s actions on the world stage would be complete without mentioning the small matter of the Iran-contra affair where cash from arms sales to Iran (!) was used to finance the Nicaraguan Contras. Reagan’s administration was no means ethically pure.

Reagan’s record will be debated endlessly. Each side will approach him coloured with their own political hue. But there is something magnificent about him. He had a moral clarity of voice, a wit, a warmth, a charm, a comforting story-telling manner, and a glint in his eye. It’s easy to see why Dr Emmett Brown scoffed. It’s also important to understand why he was wrong.

There have been two legendary post-founding father presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan is not in that category. He’s not really close. However, he certainly is one the most important 20th-century US presidents. We can admire him and question him in equal measure. He is worthy of his statue in Grosvenor Square. Here’s to the Gipper: his kind light up our political world.

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