How I define my politics rests on my conflicted understanding of Ronald Reagan, specifically his Ronald Reagan-ness. Even conservatives who think the New Deal was a boondoggle grant FDR the courtesy of a high historical ranking, so it doesn’t surprise me that liberals concede Reagan’s Importance In the Grand Scheme of Things. Men like Reagan fascinate me: these men from nowhere, defined by an ambition that will cut any obstacle in its path, yet are hollow inside, coming off as stand-ins for themselves. Their children don’t like them much. The wives stoically accept that for-better-or-worse means sitting with a rictus grin through years of the rubber chicken circuit. Think of Jay Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane. Watch Reagan at this press conference held after the stock market crash of 1987. Although he speaks well (“Silver water on peach fuzz” is Edmund Morris’ excellent description of his voice) and mostly without notes, there’s a sense in which a tape recorder switched on in his brain and played his responses to reporters while Reagan dozed elsewhere. He does come close to losing his shit near the end when, switching from communicator to pedagogue, he lectures a no doubt dazed Sam Donaldson, “Let me REMIND you that [John] Maynard Keynes didn’t even have a degree in economics.”
With the exception of the ’86 tax reform, I find most of Reagan’s financial policies — deregulation, savings and loan, tax cuts — disastrous and in the long term deadly. The Wall Street meltdown of 2008 had its roots in his administration. Try explaining this to a conservative. Remind them that with one hand Reagan cut the top income tax rate and with the other signed the largest tax increase in US history to date and they’ll walk away. It’s also not a good idea for a president to show such disinterest in the banalities of daily governmental operations that two successive national security advisers ran a junta out of the White House. Liberals are a surly bunch; they’ve long accepted FDR’s weaknesses. The lip-trembling hysteria of the Reagan centennial indicates that conservatives still don’t get it, and the media loves heroes more than the fate of conservatism.
I still recommend Morris’ vilified Dutch for the quality of its prose (I laughed out loud several times) and the judiciousness of his anecdotes. If you want a well-paced revisionist take on what Reagan did right regarding the Cold War, James Mann’s The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan will do. Finally, Christopher Hitchens’ mordant eulogy (“A cruel and stupid lizard”) is much livelier than the enervated thing Slate posted today.