I don't remember why I started writing this piece about Ronald Reagan. Back in 2004, I had produced thousands of words for a Bad Subjects piece taking his legacy as a starting point for wide-ranging personal reflections. I never finished it, sadly. Perhaps I composed these two paragraphs with the idea of resuming work on that project. Because they don't fit really fit its topic, however, I suspect I had some other motivation:
“In an ironic sense Karl Marx was right.” Although Ronald Reagan spoke these words with conviction, they aren’t the sort likely to be quoted in the flood of remembrance that has followed his death. Conservatives want us to remember his convictions, his sincerity, his sunny disposition. Those liberals bold enough to swim against the celebratory current, by contrast, want us to remember that there is a lot more than that to remember: the steep price minorities and blue-collar workers had to pay for Reagan’s economic policies, the disregard his underlings showed for the rules of geopolitical engagement, and his tendency to lose focus during complex discussions of policy. For very different reasons, then, neither group has devoted much attention to Reagan’s intellectual legacy. On the contrary, they have reinforced his reputation as a man of simple truths. If his Presidential speeches were peppered with language that would sound strange coming out of George W. Bush’s mouth, it must be because his speechwriters got carried away. Surely, the jovial jelly bean-popper can’t be personally responsible for invoking Marx in the speech he gave before the British Parliament on June 8, 1982, or for citing, “that shrewedest of all observers of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville,” and remarking that, “I was only quoting Lenin,” in the more strident revision of that speech he delivered before the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983. It’s no accident that both speeches have been reduced in the public memory to denunciations of the “Evil Empire,” with no mention of their considerable erudition. What would it mean to acknowledge that Reagan seems a lot more comfortable pronouncing the names of Lenin and Marx than he does when quoting the conference’s keynote address, “‘Yes, let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream?’”Who knows? Maybe I was just gearing up for the 2008 Presidential campaign two years early. I'm sure we're going to be hearing once again about how those Hamlets caught the last train to the coast the day our greatness died.
It’s something the Left needs to consider. While it might seem like conservatives have more to gain by restoring a measure of intellect to Ronald Reagan’s image, the move would risk exposing the contradictions at the heart of their movement. The Reagan Revolution succeeded because Republicans were able to convince a sizeable portion of the American electorate that they were the party of “ordinary people,” fighting against self-serving bureaucrats and the liberals who directed taxpayer dollars their way. Central to this project was an ingenious redefinition of the word “elite.” Instead of describing all the movers and shakers in society, its meaning narrowed to include only those college-educated, PBS viewers who voted Democratic in order to salve their own consciences. Taking pride in one’s wealth and power didn’t mean that one was an “elitist.” On the contrary, the unapologetic celebration of one’s achievements actually came to signal that a person was in touch with the American dream. Self-doubt became the enemy of the people. Attempts to question American policy, past or present, were now regarded, not with the hysteria of the Cold War-era FBI, but with a bemused shake of the head. Didn’t all those white-collar liberals driving their bumper-stickered foreign cars realize how silly their pessimism looked to the hairdressers, steelworkers, and firefighters working themselves to the bone for a lot less money? Republicans did a remarkable job of pillorying the hand-wringing of the Hamlets on both coasts. And Jimmy Carter, despite his thick accent and thicker religious ties, made the perfect effigy for them to burn. His thoughtfulness indicated, not competence, but its opposite.