Ronald Reagan, R.I.P.
By no means the least of Ronald Reagan’s achievements as man and president was that he may well have been the first chief executive since Herbert Hoover who did not deserve a prison term for his crimes. He also managed to hold the presidency twice, hand his office over to a designated successor, and remain a popular and even a beloved figure for the rest of his life. Aside from these not inestimable accomplishments, however, his enduring legacy as a conservative statesman is pretty thin.
Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan did not deceive and manipulate his country into war through outright and covert aggression against foreign nations. Unlike Harry S. Truman, Reagan did not cover up for known Soviet agents such as Alger Hiss and then vilify patriots who tried to expose them and bring them to justice. Unlike Dwight D. Eisenhower, he did not engineer the deliberate starvation of thousands of German civilians after World War II nor contrive to send thousands of Soviet POW’s back to be massacred by Stalin in “Operation Keelhaul.” Unlike John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon, Reagan did not steal the presidential election outright, use the government to spy on and harass his political rivals, or cover up criminal conduct within his own administration.
It may be that Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter did not commit such crimes either, but in the case of these two mediocrities, their innocence may have been simply because of lack of imagination rather than character. Reagan was by far the most principled man to serve as president in half a century.
And yet, given the expectations of the Reagan presidency that virtually all American conservatives had, he was a disappointment. It is simply a myth that he won the Cold War or destroyed the Soviet Union, and every serious anticommunist at the time knew that.
In 1987, Rep. Jim Courter, a strong anticommunist congressman of the era, wrote in the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review that “pronouncements by the administration about ‘having the Soviets on the run’ are totally unwarranted,” and, when Reagan left office in 1989, George Will remarked, “Reagan has accelerated the moral disarmament of the West . . . by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.” The Soviets collapsed shortly afterward mainly because of their own internal economic and political incoherence, not because Reagan defeated them.
Reagan’s most successful policies were economic, which is why the economic determinists who today dominate conservatism gush over him so much, and he did meet the challenges of an eroding economic base misguided by economic illiteracies and political demagoguery. But the federal leviathan, by the time he left office, was even larger and more powerful than when he entered, with bigger budgets, one more federal department, and unfulfilled promises of abolishing two existing departments.
What the American right of that era wanted from Ronald Reagan more than anything else was a counterrevolution against the cultural domination of liberalism. In that respect, Reagan was a miserable failure. Throughout his administration, the poison of “political correctness” and its grim sister of multiculturalism took over the nation’s universities and media, aided by the mass immigration that began to take off in the Reagan years and to which he and his administration were largely oblivious. (In 1986, administration-backed legislation delivered an amnesty for illegal aliens.)
He did little to stop or push back affirmative action; the Voting Rights Act was extended (with the help of Newt Gingrich), and the Martin Luther King, Jr., federal holiday became law. The Reagan years were critical to the racial and cultural revolution that has now enthroned itself.
Neoconservatives like to claim Ronald Reagan as one of their own and to wrap themselves in his mantle, but he was never what we today call a “neocon.” Unlike them, he was a Goldwater conservative who first came to public political attention by his rousing endorsement of Goldwater on the very eve of his 1964 defeat. From that moment until 1980, the American right defined itself around a Reagan candidacy and the promise of what he would do when he took office. Reagan was a “neoconservative” only in the sense that he was a liberal who became a conservative. The conservatism he embraced was not simply a watered-down version of liberalism purporting to be something else.
Therefore, you can’t really blame Reagan’s inadequacies as a conservative on neoconservatism, nor can you blame him as a man. You probably have to blame the ideology itself—which insisted that it really was “morning in America” when, in fact, it was far closer to the 11th hour. Only a right willing and able to tell the time correctly and explain it to Americans will be able to perceive and confront the challenges Ronald Reagan missed. The right he represented and led couldn’t do that.
This article first appeared in the July 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.