Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Lessons From the Reagan Presidency
In December 1987, following a three-day summit in Washington, D.C., Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed on a set of nuclear arms reductions. Conservative columnist George Will wrote, “December 8 will be remembered as the day the Cold War was lost.” Other commentators of similar persuasion were equally harsh or more so.
Less than two years later, the Berlin Wall came down. Some loss.
This is not to ridicule Will. Anybody who writes opinion for a living is going to be spectacularly wrong more than once. The questions of interest today are the mentality of the true believer and the difficulty of understanding, at any given moment, what’s really happening behind the headlines.
I’m thinking about that having just finished Richard Reeves’ excellent book, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. Reeves attempts, and largely succeeds at telling the story of Reagan’s presidency the way it looked as it was happening. Knowing what we know now, it’s a bit jarring.
The episode just cited, for instance, is a cautionary reminder that a true believer may be wrong not only in what he believes, but also in understanding what may or may not be advancing the cause. A critical difference between Reagan and many on the anti-Communist right is that they feared the Soviet Union and feared that it would win the Cold War. Reagan never doubted that they were losing and would lose, and in that, he was right.
Historians give us the gift of seeing the whole picture in a much more compressed fashion, hence more clearly. Walking with Reeves through Reagan’s eight years, you see connections and repetitions that you didn’t see when you were living through it one day at a time, following the news but also trying to live the rest of your life. You also see how things that seemed incredibly important at the time ended up being not so important after all.
When Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot down by the Soviet Union after it strayed into Siberian airspace in 1983, many people saw it as a sign of communist perfidy that would irreversibly damage relations between the Soviets and Americans. Reagan had the good sense to talk tough but do nothing rash, and the whole thing blew over. Seen from today’s perspective, that incident was a footnote in the history of the Cold War.
(Even more forgotten was a parallel incident, in which a U.S. warship shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988, killing 290 utterly innocent passengers and crew members. Yet another history lesson: Any country can make that sort of tragic mistake.)
Reading Reeves’ book, one is also struck by how much of any president’s time is spent reacting to unexpected circumstances. During his eight years in office, Reagan had to deal with four different Soviet leaders (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev), the crisis in Lebanon, numerous hostage situations, problems with mercurial staff members (anybody remember Secretary of State Alexander Haig?), Grenada, and the British invasion of the Falkland Islands. In those eight years, Reagan was hospitalized three times (once after being nearly killed by an assassin), and his wife, Nancy, was treated for breast cancer.
Twenty two years after Reagan left office, the people who attacked him for losing the Cold War are praising him for winning it (he didn’t do either, really) and he has become a saint to the American right. Reeves ends his book with a quote from Steven Weisman, a Times White House correspondent, reacting to the eulogies when Reagan died. “God, this is impressive,” he said, “but the man they’re talking about is not the President I covered every day.”
Or, as another newspaperman said in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”