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The Uses and Abuses of Reagan

Michael Gerson makes [1] a silly claim:

Over the past few years, Reagan’s internationalism, moralism and strategic aggressiveness have been out of favor in much of the GOP.

The first thing we must understand is that Gerson is abusing Reagan’s reputation to vindicate the shabby and discredited record of George W. Bush. Reagan’s “internationalism, moralism and strategic aggressiveness” have not been out of favor. Bush’s disastrous abuse of American power, his ignorance about the rest of the world, his contempt for allies that refused to participate in his foolish and ruinous plans, and his reckless and self-destructive behavior are out of favor. The two really have nothing in common, but it is useful for Bush’s flunkeys to claim that they are one and the same. Wrapping their errors in Reagan’s mantle makes them seem a little less egregious and harmful, but it can’t erase their huge and costly errors.

One of Bush’s flaws is that he governed as more of a hard-line ideologue than Reagan ever pretended to be, and another is that he claimed to be an internationalist while making a mockery of America’s reputation in the world. Republicans should not be deluded into thinking that they are obliged to follow Bush’s example in order to honor Reagan, but neither should they feel compelled to respond to contemporary events as if nothing had changed in the last thirty years. It would also serve them well to remember that Reagan did not govern as the combative ideologue that sometimes came across in his speeches. It is far from certain that Reagan would sympathize with the knee-jerk hawkish views that Gerson is trumpeting, but the world is so different from the Cold War era that it isn’t all that relevant. In the end, that is what hawks have to offer right now: a distorted, reductionist idea of “what Reagan would do” and a dangerous, confrontational approach to relations with other major powers that Reagan didn’t always follow when he was in office.

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15 Comments To "The Uses and Abuses of Reagan"

#1 Comment By a spencer On March 11, 2014 @ 2:55 am

Its easy to abuse Reagan’s reputation:

In 1949, this shop steward of the Hollywood Local – Democrat, naturally – took a break from his anti-nuke activism to appear in some “internationalist” trope with Patricia Neal:


#2 Comment By Ken_L On March 11, 2014 @ 6:09 am

Isn’t Reagan simply used as a convenient prop in arguments like Gerson’s, a bit like waving the flag or talking about American exceptionalism? The PNAC mob were and remain too full of themselves to accept Reagan or anyone else as a person worth following; in their own minds they are the leaders and others should be following them. Indeed their biggest complaint about the Bushes is that they failed to implement the neo-cons’ excellent strategies with sufficient zeal. References to “what Reagan would do” are nothing more than rhetorical flourishes to impress the weak-minded. They are not intended to incorporate serious analysis of Reagan’s actual circumstances and actions.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 11, 2014 @ 6:40 am

So much of Pres. Bush’s foreign policy is predicated by the event of 9/11 hysteria that it is hard to assess it.

I am not as convinced that utter ineptitude is the case. I think it may be naivete’ about the manipulative players here at home.

If not for the ‘cold war’ Pres Reagan might not be thought all that effective. The stakes were played with a much cleaner understanding of the game. There’s an us and a them. Since the 1940’s we have been communicating with the thems.

Al Queda was unwieldly for of Pres Clinton as well. They were not a clear target or even identity for that matter. And by sheer luck they slipped through the cracks and made a mess. From that moment on all policy was couched in “terrorism” rhetorical paradigms.
Everything was played as though at any moment we would be hit again and continuously. The security apparatus took on a life all its own. And it remains alive and well driven by fears of whatif.

It was an criminal act and should have been treated as such. but that now and saying that then when it was political and social suicide are two very different things. if you spent time out and about in the community — people really were scared. I think I risked getting my head broke in a post office for whistling, demonstrating an insensitivity to events.

Congress could not have been much different. The default assumption whether christian or not was that Muslims had declared war. It’s astounding that cooler heads managed to tap that idea down.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 11, 2014 @ 6:44 am

I actually believed Pres. Bush’s down home persona would have worked here.

“Whoa and whoa, let’s not get all in a tizzy. Go off rootin’ tootin’ shootin, until we know what’s what.”

But the pressure by citizens and politicians alike — not to mention very interested parties filling in the gap with volumes of misinformation.

#5 Comment By Puller58 On March 11, 2014 @ 7:05 am

Bush’s people have been fighting a rear guard action ever since he left office. Gerson knows full well that Bush has little to do with Reagan save for the party affiliation. But the Reagan has always been used as a fig leaf for Republicans to cover their misdeeds.

#6 Comment By Charlieford On March 11, 2014 @ 9:32 am

In his day, the right wing considered Reagan a “useful idiot for the Soviets.” National Review complained he was giving us Carter’s foreign policy all over again.

Reagan, were he president today, might be saying, “Mr. Putin, vacate that peninsula!” He would not be invading, any more than he invaded Warsaw or even Kabul.

#7 Comment By icarusr On March 11, 2014 @ 9:37 am

By the time 2016 rolls along, W will have been remade into a Democrat Prez by the Republicans, with Kennedy and Truman as the prototype conservative Republicans. Either that, or 2000-2008 never existed.

#8 Comment By David Naas On March 11, 2014 @ 11:05 am

On my bookshelves, I have a solid five feet of volumes by and about Reagan. I acquired those books because of my very deep and sincere admiration for the man. As a very private person in public life, he is rather hard to get a handle on, however one thing shines through very clear, the disconnect between his cowboy rhetoric and his pragmatic actions.
The attempt to use Reagan since his retirement (even during the ten years of his decline from Alzheimer’s) has been so dishonest, I can only compare it to Jacob pretending to be Esau to get Isaac’s blessing. Of course, with memories fading, the changed world since the ’80’s, and the willingness of the average person to believe highly trumpeted fantasy, it is no surprise that these people would try to hijack Reagan for their own purposes.
On the other hand, I definitely recall a lot of “conservatives” who were very upset with Reagan for being a Conservative In Name Only, as they defined it, and very suspicious of his FDR-loving past.
It is helpful to recall that Reagan did not believe in perfectionism, nor that the greatness of America derived from how much munitions were stockpiled, nor how many countries we invaded. He was essentially a man of peace, who learned the hard art of real negotiation from a position of weakness as president of SAG, and who knew the difference between a gesture and a disastrous action. To be sure, he stumbled, and some bad things happened on his watch, but what worse than in the tenure of any President who has not total control over events and outcomes?
Bottom line, Reagan knew that consequences were not predictable, something that the chickenhawks have never learned.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 11, 2014 @ 11:12 am

It is very hard for me, because I am quite fond of President Bush.

And feel like such a traitor not supporting so much of the admin policies . . .

and as painful as it is, the observation that Republicans behaved like democrats is not far off.

What was more even more painful was to watch so many republicans and conservatives abandon advances that they supported and in many instances pushed for only to see them run like ribbits when things got got rough.

Whoa . . . this too is very personal. I who actually lost so much remained loyal. I guess loyalty has become relative. That so many Republicans dashed off to the hinterlands or out and out voted for the current executive is painful.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 11, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

I did mean, “ribbits.”

#11 Comment By EarlyBird On March 11, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

The greatest abuse of Reagan by his acolytes today is how they have turned him into the war mongering extremist caricature so many of his detractors did in the past. On foreign policy, when they praise him as “strong” they mean mindlessly aggressive. On domestic policies, when they say he was “principled” they mean unyielding.

He was neither. Imagine President Obama or any other president for that matter, quietly pulling out of Lebanon after hundreds of our marines were slaughtered there by terrorists. Today’s right would simply lose its mind. Instead, Reagan knew that when you’re in a hole, stop digging. It was an act of prudence.

On domestic policies, he first of all was not a radical, but a conservative. And in that sense he first accepted and worked within the realities and constraints of a democracy, whereas so much of the right today sees governance as a zero sum war to seize and wield power, and obstruct any “other” that has power for any reason.

#12 Comment By KHW On March 11, 2014 @ 10:59 pm

bush, cheney, rumsfeld & wolfowitz all deserve a trial at the Hague and to be classified as war criminals. there are ppl in jail who have committed unspeakably minor offenses to justice than these war criminals, who are currently at their respective mansions, probably sleeping like babies

#13 Comment By EarlyBird On March 12, 2014 @ 11:28 am

“bush, cheney, rumsfeld & wolfowitz all deserve a trial at the Hague and to be classified as war criminals. there are ppl in jail who have committed unspeakably minor offenses to justice than these war criminals, who are currently at their respective mansions, probably sleeping like babies”

Thank you, KHW.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 12, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

“I can only compare it to Jacob pretending to be Esau to get Isaac’s blessing.”

Wow. That is a mouthful of meaning. There are bundles of implications in that statement and not many of them positive.

I am not sure how I missed your post. Insightful and humorous.

Jacob – that’s deep.

#15 Comment By Aaron On March 12, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

The amount of energy that G.W. Bush’s former speechwriters invest in trying to salvage the man’s reputation is pretty amazing. Even more so the fact that two of them are regularly published by the Washington Post. Even more so when you consider how mediocre their analyses are.

What is it with the mainstream media’s fascination with White House speecwriters, anyway? Has there been one since Safire who had any penchant for writing interesting columns?