The Mixed Legacy of Ronald Reagan

by | Jun 15, 2004

The hyperbole of remembrance that follows the death of any President, as has certainly followed the death of Mr. Reagan, will subside eventually and it will be left to historians to analyze what it was he did as President and whether or not that had any value. The Reagan presidency, which was marked by many […]

The hyperbole of remembrance that follows the death of any President, as has certainly followed the death of Mr. Reagan, will subside eventually and it will be left to historians to analyze what it was he did as President and whether or not that had any value. The Reagan presidency, which was marked by many crucially important events like the continuing salvos of Islamist war against the United States by Libya, Iran, and Syria and the deterioration of Soviet power in the Eastern bloc and within mother Russia, is as partisanly remembered today as it was when it was happening. Republicans claim Mr. Reagan was the greatest President of the latter half of the twentieth century, if not the entire century (often deferring greatest status to FDR), while Democrats claim that while he was a nice guy, his policies were all wrong, which they are sometimes correct about but almost always for illegitimate reasons.

Ronald Reagan entered office with a substantial mandate for undoing the harm of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who was entirely unable to deal with the problems that confronted him, be it Iranian revolution and American soil being violated in Tehran or stagflation at home caused by governmental interventionism in the economy. On January 20, 1981, the first inauguration of President Reagan, the hostages in Iran were released and sent back to the United States. Presumably this occurred because Reagan was an unknown entity to the Iranians who didn’t want to risk having their infant state squashed. Whether this is so is entirely ahistorical, except by looking to the other terrorist acts committed against Americans under the Reagan presidency and then guessing what Reagan might have done. One thing is clear, conditions for war existed whether the hostages were released or not, and we did not go to war with Iran during the Reagan presidency.

The insertion of American troops into Lebanon to “mediate” the civil war going on there between native Christian Lebanese and Syrian/Iranian inspired Muslims resulted in the latter blowing up a Marine barracks in Beirut, killing nearly 250 American soldiers. It was clear then and now that Syria was directly responsible for this attack as it was the prime arsenal of the Islamic terrorists who were fighting the Lebanese government and later became Hezbollah and the puppet government that currently runs Lebanon. Reagan’s response was to withdraw troops. Certainly all military actions during the Reagan presidency were complicated by the Cold War, having to deal with Soviet protestations and threats with nearly all actions must have weighed greatly on all Cold War era presidents. War with Syria in 1983 would have been a tremendous international story because Syria, like Iraq, were armed almost exclusively by the Soviet Union (as opposed to the liberal myth that the United States was giving the Iraqis all their weapons), and who thus had a serious economic interest in Syria remaining a terrorist and totalitarian state. Regardless, any military action would have been preferable to running away.

By April of 1986 running away had been abandoned in favor of air strikes. Libya was bombed in retaliation for targeted attacks against Americans in Germany and the Pam Am 103 flight over Scotland. This response seemingly put an end to Libyan terror activities, but not to the source of the terror activities, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government. That dictator was only redirected into weapons of mass destruction which he only recently gave up because another state similar to his was ended on that pretext, among others.

In the domestic sphere the American president is far more limited in what he can and cannot do, but he does have the ability to set the legislative agenda and propose a budget which the congress can debate on or entirely reject if it wants. President Reagan professed distaste for government programs, but in reality had very little ability to force the House of Representatives, which was run by Democrats through his entire presidency, to in any way endorse his wishes were he to push for them. Tax cuts were achieved after his election but Reagan assented to raising some of those taxes again during the middle of his first term as the economy struggled to correct itself from a decade of blundering policies by Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

During his tenure in office many religious groups attached themselves, unopposed, to his name, image, and agenda. This included “Moral Majority” and the first groups formed by reverends Pat Robertson and Jerry Faldwell. All of these groups were born in opposition to a perceived assault on “tradition” represented in cases like Griswold v. Connecticut (striking down laws preventing the use of contraception between married persons) and Roe v. Wade. These decisions declared that there was a right to privacy protected by the constitution that prevented states from outlawing consensual sexual activity among adults. Religious groups saw the Reagan presidency as a clarion to reverse this trend and seemingly succeeded in the Bowers v. Hardwick case that upheld the right of a state to outlaw sodomy. This seeming contradiction was recently ironed out with the Bowers case being overturned in the Lawrence v. Texas case. The catapulting of obscure and, quite frankly, fanatical (and were they to insert Zeus for Jesus Christ they would be called insane) preachers to positions of prominence and power is a legacy the country could do without and with have to be exorcised over a long period of time and intellectual debate.

Ultimately, Mr. Reagan never attempted to get congress to dismantle the Great Society programs, let alone the New Deal. He would most likely have failed in this task, but even the attempt would have shown his firm commitment to freedom and individual rights in the United States and the rest of the world. His defense policies were ineffectual against the threat of Islamic fundamentalists. His build up of the military had positive results because it rebuilt morale, gave the United States a large force to deal with future threats and caused a slow down in domestic spending due to the large deficits created by the defense spending. The Grenada operation allowed the military to experiment with its equipment and pointed to serious problems in communications that were able to be repaired so that they would not cause mass American deaths when we fought a more capable foe.

Mr. Reagan’s place in the history of American presidents depends on how one breaks it up. Should one look at all presidents then he looks very poor, as most presidents do when they have to be compared to Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson. If one compares him to his colleagues in the 20th century then he looks a bit better considering his competition consists of crooks like Warren Harding and Bill Clinton, and some of the greatest villains in American political history, men like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. There are also a whole host of ineffectual blowhards and compromising fools like TR, Taft, Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter and George H. W. Bush. McKinley, Coolidge, and Ford had redeeming qualities, much like Ronald Reagan, and when compared against the other presidents of the 20th century they seem preferable.

But the world didn’t begin in 1901. This country once elected better men to office and getting back to those types of people should be what we hope for. Saluting the great men who led the country in its formative years should be given days of media laudations, not the persons who presided over the decline of this great country.

Alexander Marriott is currently a graduate student of the early republic at Clark University in Worcester, MA. He earned his B.A. in history in 2004 from the University of Nevada - Las Vegas, where he was an Op-Ed columnist for the UNLV Rebel Yell. Marriott grew up in Chicago and lived in Saudi Arabia for four and a half years and has resided in Las Vegas since 1996.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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