President Ronald Reagan’s death has evoked an outpouring of grief and affection, all of it genuine. This is nothing to be ashamed of. The cartoonist Jules Feiffer, a trenchant critic, wrote once that he could not but melt when he ran across Reagan at the California beach during a morning walk, when Reagan flashed a smile at him. Throughout his career, Ronald Reagan exasperated his critics and opponents with a charm which seemed to transcend party, age and sex. A faint echo of this quality was part of the Clinton persona, although no Democrat ever mustered for Reagan the degree of hatred many Republicans nursed for Bill Clinton.
But over and beyond Reagan himself, I suspect, a significant part of the emotion springs from a sense of nostalgia. Personally for me, there is an element of sentiment, for it was during Reagan’s first term that I first came to America. For me, and perhaps many others, there is the sense that, whatever malaise Reagan rescued the country from, and whatever he left behind, there was not in those days the pervasive sense of foreboding which appears to bestride the nation today. As Dante wrote, there is no greater tragedy than looking back and seeing that we have had better times.
By sheer accident, President Reagan, who had been ailing for long, chose with impeccable timing to die in the middle of a tight election season, and on the eve of the 60th anniversary of D-Day. The event was already being used by George W. Bush as a welcome photo op, and even before news of Reagan’s death, he had plied the D-Day occasion to draw a parallel between the liberation of Europe in 1944-45 and the liberation of Iraq in last year, a thinly disguised invitation to France to chip in. Chirac publicly disavowed the comparison, but that’s another story.
All the same, history repeats itself, does it not? According to the famous quote, first as tragedy, then as farce. However, as our current president’s election handlers try to get him into this godsend of a mantle (if a couple of sizes too large), it is clear that old Karl needs to be brought up to date for our times, for in this case at least, farce appears to have come first and tragedy later. A few examples will illustrate my point.
Liberation Theology The liberation of the Eastern Bloc countries from Soviet domination was certainly hastened, if not caused, by Reagan’s policies. By itself this was a positive milestone. It was accompanied, however, by the ‘liberation’ of populations from some modicum of social support, including education, health care, and other public services, and the “deliverance” of their natural resources into the hands of multinational corporations, changes with which the people in those countries are still coping. In Russia itself, the subsequent growth of organized crime and its spread worldwide makes a farce of the word, ‘liberation’, in this context.
George W. Bush professes to do to the Islamic world what Ronald Reagan did to the Soviet Empire. While the ‘liberation’ of Eastern Europe and Russia happened without bloodshed, blood already has flown copiously from the liberation’s of Afghanistan and Iraq. Tragedy has been built into the ground floor.
The Gated Communities: Iran and Iraq Ronald Reagan had Irangate. His administration sold American weapons to Iran, and used the money to arm the Nicaraguan contras. Both aspects of the transaction were violative of American laws. Reagan claimed to know nothing about this, and his vice-president said he was ‘out of the loop’, claims best described as…well…farcical. There followed a farcical inquiry which produced no serious consequences. Oliver North now has a flourishing radio TV career, and Adm. Poindexter had a second coming as the Total Information Czar in recent times. In the throes of the scandal, the Reagan administration rather proudly pointed to its carefulness with the public exchequer — that not a single dollar of the US Taxpayer had been expended in the entire shenanigan!
George W. Bush has Iraqgate. He needed to break no law — Congress gave him the authority (there’s one tragedy to start with!). Over 800 US soldiers have died to date. More have been wounded, many disabled for life. The cost to the taxpayer is 200 billion and counting with no end in sight. All tragedy, no farce (if you ignore the sham evidence before the Security Council).
Reaganomics and Tax Cuts Ronald Reagan came to office when supply side economics was an untested theory. Congress indulged him, partly awed by his landslide victory (and the Republicans had gained the Senate after 26 years), and he passed a tax cut the first year in office. I remember one press conference in late 1981 or 1982, when the economy had tanked and unemployment was up from 8% when he took office to 11% at the time of the press conference. Someone asked him about it. “W-e-e-e-l-l, I’ll take responsibility for the 3%”, the Gipper answered coolly, shaking his head and going for the jocular as usual. It is these elements of the farce that make one nostalgic. By the end of his second term, after having rolled back his tax cuts in later years, Reagan had brought unemployment down from these heights, and had created (per his claim) 19 million new jobs.
George W. Bush is like a child who takes off with the family car as soon as he masters the forward gear, not realizing he needs a reverse gear too. Bush has stuck determinedly to the idea of tax cuts as a cure for all ills, notwithstanding the war in progress and the huge expense he has saddled the country with. He is likely to be the first President with a net job loss during his term since Herbert Hoover. In his reign too, the flight of jobs to foreign countries has skyrocketed, leading to a huge depletion of quality jobs and an erosion of the manufacturing base, the consequences of which will be felt for decades.
The Teflon coaters: John Hinckley and Osama Bin Laden Much has been written about how the assassination attempt on President Reagan caused the press to mute its criticism, giving him a virtual free pass for his entire first term. Fortunately, no one died, and Jim Brady, the President’s Press Secretary, recovered enough to become an active campaigner for gun control. John Hinckley was arrested, tried and pleaded insanity, following which he has remained in prison.
George W. Bush received his teflon coating at an exorbitant price — the loss of 3000 lives, property and business damage worth billions. In contrast to Hinckley, Osama Bin Laden, pleads not just complete sanity but total clairvoyance.
Congress – then and now Within months of the outing of the Iran-Contra scandal, Congress began hearings, with great indignation, having the highest and mightiest in the administration testify under oath. Key figures Richard Secord and Oliver North played the committee like a banjo, however, behaving almost as if they were indulging a farce. Ultimately, Secord would be sentenced. His lawyer then was one Mr. Sharp.
Not 9-11, not the lie over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, not the fabrications Powell took to the UN, but nothing — would move Congress to set up a similar committee. It would be two years before there was even any sort of inquiry set up to about 9-11. And then the administration would drag its feet over every query from the commission. Inquiries are usually set up as quickly as possible, since as any investigator knows, the longer the time lag, the greater the chances of evidence being lost. But since Reagan’s time, we have come to confuse the serious and the trivial almost routinely. The Bush administration treated demands for such an inquiry in the most cavalier fashion, before some combination of pressure and shame prevailed. (as an aside, the same Mr. Sharp has been retained by President Bush in relation to the investigation about the outing of the CIA agent married to Ambassador Wilson.)
Foreign Adventures Reagan sent troops to Lebanon. He attacked Grenada, supported death squads in El Salvador and mined the harbors of Nicaragua, . When 241 marines died in Lebanon, he wound up the military engagement there. There were eight US hostages taken at various points in time. Eventually, all of them were released unharmed. While there is nothing farcical about people dying or being killed by death squads, the scale was to rise dramatically two decades later.
Bush has committed the entire US armed forces to combat. Even at the height of the Cold War, Reagan did not declare that the nation was at war. Bush has said so several times. At least two US hostages (one in Pakistan, the other in Iraq) were to die in gruesome fashion.
The state of humor The TV stations have been playing clips of Ronald Reagan’s wit. The droll delivery, the poker faced punchline, the easy charm. What a pleasure to listen to Reagan’s answers, even if they were often short on facts! He was the master of the farce. Reagan came across as though there was just the chance that he might believe in what he was saying, which added to his credibility.
Where Reagan’s middle initial was W for witty when it came to exchanges with the press (although this too wore thin towards the end of the second term), one is tempted to use its opposite to describe George W’s press conferences. Reagan conveyed a sense of morality without moralizing. George W. is pedantic in 3rd grade English. His knit eyebrows, narrowed eyes and smirking bring a frightening realization that he really thinks in the language he speaks.
The Mahabharata asks a rhetorical question, “What is the final step in the ladder of success?” It answers, “Defeat”. As we count the tragedies, we note that it was Reagan’s aid which built up the Islamic radicals who now threaten American interests. Indeed, it was Reagan who once described a bunch of visiting Afghan mujahideen (on a tour of the White House) as ‘the moral equivalent of our founding fathers’. The single-minded concentration on the defeat of the Evil Empire, without adequate care about how it was done, has opened up a global nuclear bazaar of materials, brains and services, with consequences too terrible to contemplate.
In the end, Ronald Reagan died, the myth larger than the man. Mythmaking is a part of leadership; the impact of mythmakers is always larger than that of mere technocrats. Myth lives on in the public consciousness long after the originator has departed. Sixteen years after his term ended, Reagan’s impact is still felt, unlike that of a later two-term president, whose one great achievement — the undoing of the Reagan-Bush deficit, has itself been undone with little fuss, in less than four years. Political leaders are to be evaluated differently from others. Lord Acton’s famous saying, “Power corrupts. Absolute power, absolutely”, is well known. Less known is Acton’s next sentence, “Great men are almost always bad men.” And so it is that though President Reagan will be remembered differently — as a brilliant communicator by some, an amiable dunce by others, an idealist visionary by others yet, and a cynical fronter for the hard right by yet more — he will certainly be credited (or criticized) for the changing the rules by which we live. That he did so without making serious political enemies is both a commentary on him and on us.
In true Hollywood style, Reagan’s epitaph was long ago scripted in a film starring two of his closest friends, James Stewart and John Wayne. The movie, “The Man who shot Liberty Valance”, ends with this line: “When the legend is greater than the truth, print the legend”.