Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Reagan Centennial

My Perspective on His Legacy

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Let's face it, whether you are an ideological ally or opponent of his views, Ronald Reagan was a transformative president of an epic scale. I thought today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth (and just prior to rooting for my Steelers), I would delve into my own thoughts a bit. I think the most fascinating aspect of Reagan is how his legacy has been manipulated to suit the agendas of one political party or another. Yes, he was a staunch conservative. However, he was not the marble, flawless deity of the movement as so many today perceive him. Although he implemented "Star Wars" and filled his cabinet with neoconservative hardliners who desired to utilize tough rhetoric against the Soviet Union, he constantly demonstrated restraint and wit.

In a September 18, 1981 letter to Leonid Brezhnev, Reagan stated, "We are prepared to discuss with the Soviet Union the full range of issues which divide us, to seek significant, verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons, and to increase contracts between our nations." Although riddled with near-impeachable scandals via the incident in Grenada and the Iran-Contra affair, he was not entirely a militaristic hawk. Furthermore, his ability to negotiate can also be seen in his relationship with Speaker of the House (and Dem) Tip O'Neill. Even after legislative battles in Congress, it was not uncommon for the two men to share a drink at the White House. In fact, we could use a little more of such political geniality today.

We must also remember the man was a product of Hollywood, which is not known for its conservative tendencies. By looking at the record, the president had his leftists tendencies as well. Reagan was pro-amnesty for illegal aliens, negotiated with enemies (and terrorists), nominated moderates judges as Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, expanded Social Security, raised taxes, and expanded the Federal Government. At the same time, however, he forcefully pushed through Republican ideals by cutting welfare, taking anti-environment and pro-military stances, and instituted conservative fiscal programs. In the course of this process, the nation understandably became divided. Even Reagan's own children grew apart from him amidst this social division as a result.

If my signals here seem mixed, there is a point to that. It seems to me that those who blindly love or hate Reagan the most have very little understanding of who he truly was: a president with a mixed agenda and a mixed legacy. Yes, he was undoubtedly conservative. But not to the point that he was uncooperative, inflexible, or extreme in defending his views. The man was genial, a great communicator (thanks to his acting days), and could instill American pride. On the other side of the spectrum, he had liberal tendencies (also due in part to his Hollywood days) and partnered with Democrats to achieve certain tasks. I think the PBS episode of American Experience on Reagan above does an excellent job of interpreting the man's complexities and contradictions. An upcoming HBO documentary in commemoration of the Reagan centennial will likely hope to do much the same I imagine.

Alright, what exactly am I trying to say here? It is this: We must take the man off the pedestal he has been placed upon (as we should with our Founding Fathers) and take a look at the historical record and human perspective without the blindfolds of party affiliation or political ideology. Reagan was a man that accomplished deeds both good and bad as all presidents do. It is up to us as individual citizens to judge that balance and its ramifications for ourselves rather than fall prey to the narratives of contemporary pundits and party leaders. After all, it was the Gipper himself who once said, "Don't be afraid to see what you see."

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