For those of us who grew up and came to political consciousness in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan is a singular figure: quite simply, Reagan was the quintessential bad guy for young liberal minds in formation. By the time I was 16-- midway through Reagan''s second term--I personally found it difficult to carry on an extended conversation about politics (or anything else) with anyone who did not at least share the presumption that Ronald Reagan was really, really bad.
With Reagan's death this weekend at age 93, we are sure to hear not only encomiums from the many remaining true believers on the right, but also bear witness to the distressing spectacle of centrist and liberal minded politicians straining to say good things to say about Reagan. Few mainstream commentators or politicians are likely to offer honest assessments of Reagan's actual impact on American politics and the world community.
Politeness and reasonable respect for the dead should not disguise the reality that Reagan made ignorance an acceptable quality for a president, that he set the tone for a meaner America that demeaned the poor and celebrated the rich, that his government supported both violent right-wing guerillas and violent right-wing governments in Central America, that his White House pioneered a style of politics based on hour-by-hour manipulation of the media, or that Reagan probably should have been impeached over the Iran-Contra affair.
And yet--even if we considered a much longer list of Reagan's "accomplishments"--I cannot avoid the feeling that even Reagan was a much less dangerous president than the current incumbent.
Reagan funded military shenanigans around the world (including the "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan who later mutated into the Taliban and Al-Qaeda) and showed contempt for international law, yet never committed American soldiers to a major war abroad or launched a systematic campaign to deceive the American people to win approval for major military action.
Likewise, Reagan gutted numerous domestic programs while slashing taxes for the rich, yet he never seriously challenged the basic pillars of the New Deal (including Social Security) in the way that Karl Rove and like-minded members of the reigning conservative coalition now envision.
Most importantly, as president Reagan demonstrated, in a mild but significant degree, one leadership quality which George W. Bush sorely lacks: namely, a capacity for maturation and moral growth.
Early in Reagan's first term, the president was recorded making a fake broadcast announcing imminent nuclear war with the Soviet Union--a gaffe which seemed to make light of the nuclear danger and reinforced Reagan's image as an out of control cowboy. Yet by the 1984 presidential debates, Reagan was advocating "Star Wars" not as a tool for U.S. technological supremacy but, stunningly, as an instrument of world peace, suggesting that once a defense system against nuclear missiles was developed, the U.S. would freely share the technology with the Soviet Union.
Realists dismissed Reagan's proposed generosity while liberals (correctly) derided Star Wars as a technological fantasy and a waste of money, but Reagan's proposal reflected a change in the President's mindset. Indeed, during the 1986 Reykjavik summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan (to the chagrin of his advisers) was quite taken by Gorbachev's proposal to dismantle each country's nuclear arsenal entirely. The proposal ultimately died as Reagan was unwilling to give up Star Wars, and the episode became a too little-remembered episode of late Cold War history.
But by the end of his presidency, at least with respect to nuclear weapons, Reagan was not the same man who took office in 1981. Indeed, it appears that sometime in his first term, Reagan became truly and sincerely horrified at the very real possibility of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, or an accidentally launched nuclear war. The gun-rattling hawk became a visionary dove on nuclear issues--a leader who believed, as he wrote in a 1986 letter, in trying to "rid the world once and for all of nuclear weapons." Even if nuclear abolition was not achieved, Reagan did negotiate two arms controls deals with the Soviets and oversaw a de-escalation of tension with the USSR in his second term.
Unfortunately, Reagan's political heir, George W., has shown little or no capacity for such moral maturation during his time in office. In the past year, we've been treated to "mission accomplished," "bring it on," and ill-conceived jokes about looking for missing weapons of mass destruction from Mr. Bush–at the same time that the on the ground situation in Iraq has steadily deteriorated. Bush's us-versus-them worldview matches Reagan's for simplicity, but it is mixed with an additional dose of arrogant self-righteousness, fueled by personal religious convictions that reinforce absolute belief in his own rectitude rather than humility and a keen consciousness of human limitations and fragility. (At least Reagan actually apologized, in 1987, for Iran-Contra.)
Perhaps the shocking photographs from Abu Ghraib are the best and last opportunity for the lightbulb to go off in Mr. Bush's head, for the Texan to have a moment of moral awakening and moral humility that cause him to re-think his attitude toward the world in the same way that Reagan re-thought his attitude toward nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, recent public statements from Bush do not offer much promise that the abuse scandal has impacted his mindset in any substantial way.
Predictably, Bush will be among those Americans this week celebrating the life of Ronald Reagan for all the wrong reasons. But Bush has only inherited Reagan's political outlook, and not the Californian's single redeeming quality as president: the presence, buried deep beneath the ideology, of an independent, thinking conscience not enslaved to the views of advisers, capable of changing its mind, and capable of being moved by humane concerns.
Thad Williamson, co-author of 'Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era' (Routledge, 2002), is a doctoral student in Government at Harvard University and a member of the editorial collective of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.