Happy 100th, Ronald Reagan

Rick Moran
Exactly 100 years ago in Tampico, IL - not far from where I am sitting writing this - Ronald Reagan was born. I realize that all Americans lay claim to Reagan's legacy, but I hope you'll forgive a little Heartland chauvinism and allow me to say that we here in the Midwest - perhaps more than others - can claim him as a favorite son.

Heartland values defined his life. The simplicity and decency of his character were forged on the prairie. His optimism and sunny disposition came to him naturally, a product of small town Americana.

I'm sure you've read a lot this week about Reagan. Even from the vengeful, hateful left, there has been a grudging acknowledgment of his gifts. On the right, however, there has been too much over the top Reagan worship for my tastes. Reagan was an imperfect man whose presidency had its flaws. He accomplished great things and failed greatly in others. Looking at only his warts, or his successes is superficial, however, and does not give us a complete picture of either Reagan, the person, or Reagan, the world-historical figure. That job is left to some future biographer who will be far enough removed so that the emotion people feel toward Ronald Reagan has been wrung out of the record. Right now, we are still far too close to the man and his times to make a competent judgment about his ultimate place in history.

The French academy used to have a rule that historians couldn't write about any subject newer than 100 years old. This 19th century dictum was based on the idea that it took about 100 years for all correspondence, diaries, papers, and private recollections about a person or an event to come to light. From this distance, it seems a little silly. But the idea is not without merit. How can we judge someone without absorbing the totality of their impact on the world? This is especially true of Reagan who inspired such passion for and against him while he was on the national stage. That passion interferes with analysis and tempts the historian to ignore some facts in order to highlight others in service to ideology or bias.

It should also be noted that Reagan's influence is still relevant today. Decisions made during his presidency are still effecting events in the Middle East, Europe, Russia and elsewhere. A final judgment of whether his impact was positive or negative in many areas, both foreign and domestic, has yet to be written.

It is in GOP politics that Reagan's impact is still felt at the gut level. Candidates try to claim his mantle. Activists demand we follow his philosophy. Politicians invoke his name and legacy to win votes. But there is no "next Reagan" or even "Reaganesque" politicians. You don't duplicate great men whose like is seen so rarely. By definition, the facsimile pales in comparison and ultimately disappoints. In this sense, it is better for Republicans if they were to wrap Reagan's memory and set it in a special place where we can cherish it, admire it, but recognize the limitations that myth can have on policy choices.

It is not 1980. Our problems are different. The first decade of the 21st century demands different answers. The questions that faced Ronald Reagan when he took office were different than the ones we are asking today. It would be like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole if we attempted to force a Reagan template over our current dilemma. Surely we can demand allegiance to his principles. And copying his virtues would be a capitol idea. But his solutions, which were fine for his times, would find little success today.

Therein lies the danger of taking Reagan hagiography too far. By celebrating a mythic past, we mire ourselves in solutions that have no relevance to our present problems. The truth about Reagan is grand enough, without need to embellish it. Nor does it necessarily mean that by pointing out Reagan's flaws that you are trying to give the statue feet of clay. Ronald Reagan - the good, the bad, the indifferent - has to be taken as he was, living in the times he did, with all his accomplishments and failures in order to glean the essence of the lessons we can draw from his time in office.

The idea that Obama wants to embrace the Reagan personae and claim it for his own says something profound about the Gipper. I don't recall any Republicans attempting to claim such from FDR or even Kennedy. It is a mark of his originality and still momentous impact on our national life that a liberal like Obama wants to capture something of the Reagan magic to this day.

Nobody will be fooled by it, that's for sure.



Exactly 100 years ago in Tampico, IL - not far from where I am sitting writing this - Ronald Reagan was born. I realize that all Americans lay claim to Reagan's legacy, but I hope you'll forgive a little Heartland chauvinism and allow me to say that we here in the Midwest - perhaps more than others - can claim him as a favorite son.

Heartland values defined his life. The simplicity and decency of his character were forged on the prairie. His optimism and sunny disposition came to him naturally, a product of small town Americana.

I'm sure you've read a lot this week about Reagan. Even from the vengeful, hateful left, there has been a grudging acknowledgment of his gifts. On the right, however, there has been too much over the top Reagan worship for my tastes. Reagan was an imperfect man whose presidency had its flaws. He accomplished great things and failed greatly in others. Looking at only his warts, or his successes is superficial, however, and does not give us a complete picture of either Reagan, the person, or Reagan, the world-historical figure. That job is left to some future biographer who will be far enough removed so that the emotion people feel toward Ronald Reagan has been wrung out of the record. Right now, we are still far too close to the man and his times to make a competent judgment about his ultimate place in history.

The French academy used to have a rule that historians couldn't write about any subject newer than 100 years old. This 19th century dictum was based on the idea that it took about 100 years for all correspondence, diaries, papers, and private recollections about a person or an event to come to light. From this distance, it seems a little silly. But the idea is not without merit. How can we judge someone without absorbing the totality of their impact on the world? This is especially true of Reagan who inspired such passion for and against him while he was on the national stage. That passion interferes with analysis and tempts the historian to ignore some facts in order to highlight others in service to ideology or bias.

It should also be noted that Reagan's influence is still relevant today. Decisions made during his presidency are still effecting events in the Middle East, Europe, Russia and elsewhere. A final judgment of whether his impact was positive or negative in many areas, both foreign and domestic, has yet to be written.

It is in GOP politics that Reagan's impact is still felt at the gut level. Candidates try to claim his mantle. Activists demand we follow his philosophy. Politicians invoke his name and legacy to win votes. But there is no "next Reagan" or even "Reaganesque" politicians. You don't duplicate great men whose like is seen so rarely. By definition, the facsimile pales in comparison and ultimately disappoints. In this sense, it is better for Republicans if they were to wrap Reagan's memory and set it in a special place where we can cherish it, admire it, but recognize the limitations that myth can have on policy choices.

It is not 1980. Our problems are different. The first decade of the 21st century demands different answers. The questions that faced Ronald Reagan when he took office were different than the ones we are asking today. It would be like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole if we attempted to force a Reagan template over our current dilemma. Surely we can demand allegiance to his principles. And copying his virtues would be a capitol idea. But his solutions, which were fine for his times, would find little success today.

Therein lies the danger of taking Reagan hagiography too far. By celebrating a mythic past, we mire ourselves in solutions that have no relevance to our present problems. The truth about Reagan is grand enough, without need to embellish it. Nor does it necessarily mean that by pointing out Reagan's flaws that you are trying to give the statue feet of clay. Ronald Reagan - the good, the bad, the indifferent - has to be taken as he was, living in the times he did, with all his accomplishments and failures in order to glean the essence of the lessons we can draw from his time in office.

The idea that Obama wants to embrace the Reagan personae and claim it for his own says something profound about the Gipper. I don't recall any Republicans attempting to claim such from FDR or even Kennedy. It is a mark of his originality and still momentous impact on our national life that a liberal like Obama wants to capture something of the Reagan magic to this day.

Nobody will be fooled by it, that's for sure.