The presidents stand among us in history according to the parts they played and the effects they had on the dominant tendencies and changes that swept through their arbitrary terms of office.
Washington's greatness among us is rooted in his tenacious generalship against the British and then his refusal to be the king, not in anything he did as president (indeed, Hamilton was effectively the president when Washington bore the title). Jefferson's greatness abides in his writing the Declaration of Independence, his powerful influence through Madison in the adoption of the Bill of Rights, and, when president, his reversal of the royalist import of the Alien and Sedition laws. Yet both (and Madison, as well) stand shamed and disgraced in history for their ownership and exploitation of slaves.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, in the main a wartime expediency, was no secure expression of his beliefs -- he wanted to send the blacks back to Africa. And neither the eloquence of his great speeches nor his epochal assassination erase from his standing in history the truth (as it is embodied, for instance, in Edmund Wilson's impassioned preface to Patriotic Gore) that Lincoln did not vigorously resist the coming of the Civil War -- that when, for instance, he sent troops to Fort Sumter his melancholy fatalism was acting as a major cause of the war.
Much of the credit for the New Deal's life-transforming changes belongs, not to Franklin Roosevelt, but to Eleanor and to the likes of Paul Douglas, who gave us Social Security. Roosevelt's part in World War II, a key factor in the shape and destiny of the modern world, does not extirpate from his record his shameful turning the shipful of Jews at our shores back into Europe, and then his abandonment of the Jews of Europe to their slaughter in the course of that war.
Nor can Harry Truman's election-strategy lip service in 1948 to national health insurance and civil rights for blacks ever outweigh on the scales of history his Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his needlessly making our country the only one, so far, that has exploded nuclear weapons on the helpless and innocent inhabitants of cities.
I shall be advancing fairly soon my own final assays of Lyndon Johnson simply because my own probable life-span requires that I do so; and those of us from Texas have ready-enough opinions of the two Bushes whom we and the country have suffered. On the moral truths about the presidents that matter the most and last the longest, not enough has come out yet, nor has enough time passed to let our opinions form free of our own involvements, for us to judge the recent Presidents with more than tentative confidence. We should not begrudge those who admired Ronald Reagan's personal charm, reactionary flair, and mean-minded conservatism their declarations of his greatness in the midst of their grief. Still, all those post-mortem adulations of Reagan, whipped up in the mass media and drummed home on the TV, require some balancing at once, before his admirers dynamite Mount Rushmore and erect a gigantic megalith to him in its place.
There is real point and value, first, in contesting the attribution of the collapse of the Soviet Union to him. The Democrats and the Republicans fought the Cold War together and all the post-World War II presidents of both parties fought it in many ways, in Korea, in Vietnam, often opportunistically and sometimes to the point of dishonor, with the sweat and gore of soldiers who were Democrats, Republicans and nonpolitical. Giving the credit for the collapse of communism to Reagan is tainted not only with the partisan purpose of deifying one's own ideology, but also latently by the same attribution of pro-communism to the Democrats that Martin Dies of Texas and Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin fashioned into historic careers. What should be granted, and gracefully, is the vital importance of Reagan's role as he peered through the thicket of his own rhetoric to discern the humanity of the Russian people, befriend and listen to Mikhail Gorbachev, and postulate that together they could make co-existence work.
Robert Kaiser, spotting Gorbachev at Reagan's funeral in Washington on June 10, wrote in the Washington Post that he "had flown from Moscow to pay respects to Nancy Reagan and to the man with whom he changed the course of history." That evening at the Russian Embassy, Kaiser reported, Gorbachev gave "a kind of personal eulogy" to Reagan.
By 1986, remember, Reagan, a militaristic hawk who scorned detente and arms control, had launched Star Wars and crushed the Nuclear Freeze Movement in the United States while placing multiple-warhead nuclear missiles in Europe. "By Gorbachev's account," Kaiser reported, "it was his [Gobachev's] early successes on the world stage that convinced the Americans that they had to deal with him and to match his fervor for arms control and other agreements that could reduce East-West tensions."
"All that talk that somehow Reagan's arms race forced Gorbachev to look for some arms reductions, etc., that's not serious," Gorbachev said. "The Soviet Union could have withstood any arms race ... And we both knew what kind of weapons we each had. There were mountains of nuclear weapons."
Gorbachev undertook glasnost and economic and political reforms in the Soviet Union, he said, not because of US military intimidation, but because his own country "was being stifled by the lack of freedom. ... We were increasingly behind the West, which ... was achieving a new technological era, a new kind of productivity. ... And I was ashamed for my country -- perhaps the country with the richest resources on earth, and we couldn't provide toothpaste for our people." Gorbachev's puzzling and stubborn insistence on retaining in the Soviet system something he called communism sank him with his own people once he had freed them. But while he was at the very top of that system he turned against the murderous totalitarianism and the dictatorial economy that it had become.
Reagan "decided to be a peacemaker" just as Gorbachev, who wanted to be one, too, came to power, Kaiser quotes Gorbachev as saying. "A particularly positive influence on him -- more than anyone else -- was Nancy Reagan," Gorbachev said. "She deserves a lot of credit for that."
In 1986 in Geneva the two men signed a declaration that nuclear war was unthinkable. "That," Gorbachev said to the group in Washington, "was the beginning of hope." Gorbachev conducted a press conference in Geneva seated in the midst of his fellow members of the Politburo. Listening to the translation through earphones, seated about 10 or 12 feet in front of him, I studied and heard him carefully there for about two hours. The dessicated communist ideologues to his left and right -- all males, of course -- said nothing, sat stiff and tense, while from their very midst Mikhail Gorbachev cast out into the world such an outpouring of spontaneous, luminous, flexible, reasonable and humanistic approaches and positions as none of us had ever heard from a Soviet leader. He, this one man who had been appointed the dictator of the Soviet Union, was opening it up from within, and he, this one man with a continent on his forehead, was going to make peace with the West.
I drove back across France to the writers' colony in Cassis where my wife Patricia Blake and I were staying. Waking her up, I said to her, "Gorbachev is a great man." Her brilliant journalistic and literary career has helped illuminate the rottenness of the Soviet system and the courage of the writers and artists who resisted it, so she was quite taken aback. She'd have to wait and see about that. Without explanation I have just asked her, 18 years later, "Do you believe that Mikhail Gorbachev is a great man in history?" and she has exclaimed in reply: "Yes!"
On the newsstands the Weekly Standard calls Reagan "The Great Liberator," and The Economist, on its cover, calls him "The man who beat communism." Reagan and Gorbachev ended the Cold War, which was hellbent for nuclear holocaust. But Gorbachev is the great liberator, the man who beat communism.
And what else should be said? Ah, here's the downside.
Reagan initiated and launched the consolidation of the domination of the US by gigantic multinational corporations. He relentlessly hawked the ideology that the federal government is the problem, not the solution, proposing thereby to strip the people of the country of that very government, our only instrument of interest and defense strong enough to govern those very same rapacious corporations.Turning from a liberal into a reactionary as soon as he got rich from acting, he predictably and consistently favored the rich over the poor in tax, spending, and every other governmental policy. He intended to totally abolish Social Security. One of the things I'm proudest of concerning my 1983 book about him is that from his own radio broadcasts in the 1970s, which I had obtained by hook if not by crook, I nailed him (especially with the Congress) as a sworn enemy of the social insurance and medical care system without which a huge portion of older Americans would be abandoned, very poor, and as sick as nature chose.
That's one set of things. The other thing, equally noxious though only in one realm, is what Reagan did, below the radar of public attention, to television and radio. Through Mark Fowler and his other appointments to the FCC Reagan abolished the fairness doctrine, which required the networks and stations to be fair -- to give someone unfairly attacked the right to reply.
The people own the airways. We ought to be using them for vital public education and debate. Instead we have let a few gigantic conglomerates use networks of the stations to sell us products while treating our brains as greedballs and our elections as horse races. The result two decades later is an evolutionary maladaptation of democracy from which the US may never recover. The Fox network is the flagrant precursor of the pollution of all the airways with deliberately slanted, deliberately inflammatory corporate and right-wing special pleading, the very pollution that was the foul intent and purpose of Reagan's abolition of the fairness doctrine. Nothing restrains or rebukes the all-day, all-evening reactionary cant of the Fox network because there is no fairness doctrine.
Reagan fought for what he believed in. As Gorbachev has also said since Reagan died, "he was sincere." To win his points, though, he lied frequently and spun out fairy tales as if he were Walt Disney. He invaded left-leaning little Grenada (can anyone remember the pretext?). And in the Iran-Contra affair he dishonored and disgraced the presidency, violating acts of Congress and misappropriating federal money, clearly impeachable offenses.
On balance, Reagan played a vital and original role in the ending of the Cold War, violated his oath of office and the Constitution in the Iran-Contra matter, fostered the domination of the American government by transnational corporations and enabled the domination of the collective mind of the American people by TV and radio networks whose owners are now the commanding propagandists of the American system.
How accountable he will be held for his failings in the longest run depends, I think, on whether our present condition, which is crypto-fascist, is permitted to descend next November further toward or altogether into all-out militaristic fascism. Perhaps as a people we can pull back from the Reagan era and win some more time to try to save ourselves from the federally sanctioned propaganda, socio-ethical debasements, and wars of aggression that Reagan and his successors have wrought in the once-shining name of the United States. Maybe Reagan's luck, as well as our own, will hold and we'll take back the country in November. But if we don't I believe that Reagan will be damned in history as the most important of the killers of the American democracy during the long, darkening turn into the Third Millennium that began with his election.
Ronnie Dugger, the founding editor of The Texas Observer, wrote The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson (W.W. Norton 1982) and On Reagan: The Man and His Presidency (McGraw-Hill 1983). A shorter version of this appeared in The Texas Observer. Copyright 2004 Ronnie Dugger.