The King Is Dead...

Hmm... what to say, what to say. There’s a common convention that dictates one should speak no ill of the dead. And while I don’t subscribe to that convention, I don’t necessarily see any great call to deliberately go out of my way to speak ill. Not to mention that in any way denigrating the memory of the deity of Republicanism — or at least its patron saint — is likely to make me one hell of a lot more enemies than I’ve got already.


It seems like many in the media are developing one hell of a selective memory when it comes to eulogizing the Gipper. I don’t have anything against the man himself, but I can’t quite bring myself to separate his memory from his policies. After all, I didn’t know the man as an individual — I knew him as a president. The fact that he presided over the “greed” decade, that his economic policies (“...something, d-o-o economics...?”) led directly to the largest polarization of wealth in my lifetime; these are inseparable elements of his legacy. His unswervingly warlike worldview certainly helped lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union — nothing like bankruptcy to kill a government — and while that’s a good thing overall (though one could argue that things aren’t much more “democratic” now), he also nearly bankrupted us in the process.

No, I think the most damning thing about Reagan’s legacy is the example he set for future generations. Where Reagan painted the Soviets as the “evil empire,” it has now become acceptable to paint any ideological enemy with the same brush — I’m sorry, but Saddam Hussein was no Leonid Brezhnev. Where the nation managed to survive Reagan’s (at the time) unprecedented deficits, it has now become acceptable to go beyond even Reagan’s level of debt — which, as we now know, was intended largely to provide an excuse to cut off social services spending. Where Reagan epitomized the “God is on our side” mentality, his successors use the same ideology to denigrate not only their true enemies, but any political opponent who doesn’t see the world in such black-and-white terms.

Now, is this Reagan’s fault? Partially, maybe, but I don’t think one can necessarily stick him with all of that baggage. One can’t truly judge an individual solely on what evil is later done in his name. To pick an egregiously extreme example, I like to think Jesus had some pretty good ideas — “nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change,” as the late Douglas Adams put it. That said, one can’t deny that one hell of a lot of evil has been done in his name. Does that reflect poorly on him? A bit, perhaps, but I’ve got to say that by far the lion’s share has to rest on those who actually committed the evil. So while I will never come close to idolizing Reagan — for me, National Airport will forever be just that, and never “Reagan National Airport” — neither am I going to stick Reagan in quite the same category as, say, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld and their ilk.

I was too young ever to have voted for (or against) Reagan, though I remember singing his praises as an idealistic eleven-year-old. As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I did vote for Bush the elder, but that was less political ideology than an effort to curry favor with my Chemistry lab partner, a gorgeous old-money Pennsylvania blonde who — naturally — wanted nothing to do with me. My political “awakening” didn’t occur until midway through my college years, and coincided with my religious “awakening.” Not that either political party really accepted “nonbelievers,” but at least the Democrats didn’t overtly profess that you were going to hell. But whatever his shortcomings (and they were many), Reagan was, at the core, a uniter. No matter how extreme one’s political ideology, it was difficult to really hate him, even while hating his policies. I truly wish the same could be said for today’s Republican leaders. There are examples — say, John McCain or John Warner — but the extremism of the GOP primary process has pretty much guaranteed that these less polarizing voices will never be given the nod at the national level.

Goodbye, Ronald Reagan. I may never find myself supporting your political policies, but I truly lament the loss of your unifying nature.


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