Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Joining the Reagan Frenzy

Well, it seems I spoke a little to soon in my earlier comments about the press keeping things classy in regards to Ronald Reagan. The spinfest has begun, with both sides trying to out shout the other so they can put their stamp, or smear as the case may be, on the Reagan legacy. While many on the right are getting pretty heated up about the attempts to degrade Reagan's place in history, I see this as inevitable. In a society as politically polarized as America's is, it is impossible to have a great impact on the world and not infuriate around 50% of the population in the process. Anyone who actually manages to influence real change, as Reagan did, is going to become a demon to half of us.

Is all this debate about a dead president important? You bet it is. While many will write off the back and forth in the media as simple partisan background noise, what's happening here is a struggle to write history. I know first hand how important this is, because for a long time I took as fact many of the things that Reagan's opponents had forced into the public consciousness. Years ago I took for granted that Reagan was pretty stupid, that he personally said it was OK to consider ketchup as a vegetable on school lunch menus, that he was just fine with $500 toilet seats for the military, and that he was seriously outclassed by the wily Gorbachev in their many summit meetings. I specifically remember that last point being pounded home in a PBS documentary. The line went something like this: "a study in contrasts; the sophisticated, worldly Gorbachev, and the awkward bumbling Reagan." Combined with some well edited shots of Reagan looking confused and Gorbachev looking relaxed and confident, that was enough to convince a fairly intelligent 18 year old that the 40th president wasn't all he was cracked up to be. Unfortunately, I had been duped, and it took a lot of years for me to figure it out. When I was older, I caught another documentary on Reagan and Gorbachev on the History Channel. This one relied very heavily on actual interviews with the people involved in the summit meetings (imagine that) rather than an omnipotent voice over to help you to understand what was going on. I was stunned to hear the Russian generals state over and over how they felt as if Reagan took control of the meetings from the very start and that Gorbachev never seemed to get his footing. They also admitted that they thought Jimmy Carter was a complete joke, and that they toyed with him by pretending to be interested in his disarmament ideas just to get him to concede them whatever they wanted. When Reagan was elected, they knew the jig was up.

As with any account of history, there is more than one side to the Reagan legacy. Many of Reagan's critics bring up sound points: Were there illegal dealings in the Iran contra scandal? It's likely there were. Was Reagan slipping a little towards the end of his second term? Maybe. Did he delegate important decisions that he should have been more involved in? Perhaps. These things should be debated and investigated, because we can't learn from our mistakes if we can't figure out if they were ever made or not. But let's not be so petty that we can't accept simple, provable fact. The desperation on the part of some to deny Reagan credit for ending the cold war, among other things, is simply laughable. He did it. There were cameras. There are documents. Accept it and move on. There's plenty not to like about Ronald Reagan, or anyone else for that matter, without having to make things up.

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