The Search for the Historical Reagan

The last and greatest betrayal


Politicians are infamous for not following through on their promises, and that was as true of Ronald Reagan as anyone else. I don't mean that as a criticism, though it might sound that way: The reminder that Reagan was a political animal sounds jarring at a time when half the ideological spectrum writes as though he walked on water, and the other half mostly treads quietly out of respect for the dead. In fact, Reagan's ability to betray his backers—put more gently, to change his mind—was probably the best thing about his presidency.

That might sound odd coming from a libertarian, since it was Reagan's free-market rhetoric that bore the brunt of his betrayals. The man who passed an enormous tax cut in 1981 followed it with an enormous tax increase in 1982. Privatization went nowhere under Reagan, and spending grew enormously; on regulation his record was mixed at best. (The man who decontrolled the price of oil and abolished the Fairness Doctrine also presided over new trade restrictions and farm programs. He also "deregulated" the S&L industry while actually increasing the government's insurance guarantees, with disastrous results.) The best you can say about his economic policies is that, while he didn't roll back many rules—if there was a deregulation president, his name was Jimmy Carter—Reagan generally refrained from imposing new regulations on the industries that were emerging during his watch. This was one of the reasons for the Reagan-Clinton boom, and I'm grateful for it. But it isn't exactly reform.

Still, the economy was hardly the only issue in the election of 1980. And if Reagan didn't live up to the expectations of his libertarian supporters, the flipside is that he did the same thing to his backers on the Christian right, and among that species of anti-Communist that seemed unconcerned with the specter of nuclear war.

First consider the Christian conservatives. Reagan's record on civil liberties wasn't very good: He pumped up the drug war, increased government secrecy, and—another broken promise—failed to end draft registration. But aside from a pornography commission that largely went nowhere, he also failed to advance the cultural agenda of the Falwells and Robertsons, evincing instead the sort of tolerance you'd expect from a twice-married movie star. During the '80s, women quietly came closer to economic parity with men; meanwhile, homosexuals had so little to fear from Washington that Reagan-hating gay activists, unable to find examples of the president actually cracking down on their community, were reduced to complaining about how long it took the man to say the word "AIDS."

Nor am I a great fan of Reagan's foreign policy, far too much of which consisted of giving aid to thugs (some of whom repaid this generosity two decades later by turning their fire on Americans). He's widely credited with pushing the Soviet Union to collapse, but the jury's still out on that; and I'm inclined to think the Soviet state would have died soon anyway, even if he did hasten its end. What he did right—probably the most important decision Reagan made during his reign—was to recognize, after throwing down the gauntlet, that Gorbachev was serious about making peace, and then to push for missile reductions over the objections of the hard-core hawks in his party. Looking back on his presidency, it's clear that he didn't deserve the Ronnie Raygun caricature he was tarred with. When Reagan said he wanted to end both communist tyranny and the threat of nuclear holocaust, he was perfectly serious, a truth missed by those, on the left and the right, who thought you could target one or the other but never both.

Of course, he was also always clear about that goal. So I suppose he wasn't betraying a promise that time; if he was betraying anything, it was the assumptions the rest of us projected onto him. On his death, let's do both him and history a favor, and start talking about the real Reagan as opposed to the Reagan of our nightmares and fantasies.