Tuesday, February 06, 2007
James B. Pinkerton: As time goes by, Reagan looks like a giant
February 6, 2007
As with any historical figure, Ronald Reagan's reputation has been riding both the up escalator and the down escalator.
But it's interesting today, on what would have been the 40th president's 96th birthday, to note that Reagan is being increasingly praised by onetime enemies and increasingly criticized by ostensible friends - who at least call themselves conservatives.
For most of Reagan's life and career, the liberal/media establishment contented itself with phrases such as "right-wing cowboy" and "amiable dunce" to describe the Gipper.
But now, the judgment is changing. For example, Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal, quoted Leslie Stahl as admiring Reagan's "gallantry." Stahl, who covered Reagan for CBS News, certainly rarely had anything nice to say about him when he was in office. But in the nearly two decades since, even many liberals have admitted that Reagan's leadership succeeded in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and in the economic war against inflation and economic "malaise."
And now comes an approving book from John Patrick Diggins, well-known historian of the left, "Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History," which argues that Reagan "deserves to be regarded as one of our three or four greatest presidents."
Diggins lauds Reagan for ending the nuclear arms race and moving America away from welfare-state dependency, but then he takes his praise in a direction many traditional Reaganites might not agree with: "Far from being a conservative, Reagan was the great liberating spirit of modern American history, a political romantic impatient with the status quo."
The author is on to something. Reagan, after all, declared many times on the stump that Americans "have the power to begin the world over again" - not exactly a conservative thought. In fact, Reagan was a New Dealer back in the '30s and '40s; as he often said, he didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him. So Diggins' book will make some conservatives uncomfortable - precisely because the author has articulated an additional facet of Reagan's persona.
But that's the way it goes with the great actors of history. On the occasion of Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton declared, "Now he belongs to the ages." Stanton might have said, "Now he belongs to the historians" - who have been writing about Lincoln ever since. And so it goes, as well, for Reagan, who died in 2004.
Interestingly, many "friends" of Reagan have turned into ex-friends. One such is the prominent neoconservative Norman Podhoretz. As early as 1983, he accused Reagan of "appeasement by any other name" - this being the same year that Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative.
But the neocons have their specific reason for disliking Reagan: They accuse him of being weak in the Middle East. The clearest statement of this view has come from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said back in 2003, "The terrorists declared war on America ... many years before Sept. 11, 2001." She cited, among other incidents, "the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985, the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988" - all of which occurred during the Reagan presidency. Yet, Rice continued, until the George W. Bush administration, "the terrorists faced no sustained, systematic and global response."
These days, of course, the wisdom of the Bush administration's "response" to terrorism - specifically, the Iraq war - is under, shall we say, close scrutiny. And so maybe Reagan's response doesn't look so bad in comparison. Nobody thinks of his Marine mission to Lebanon as a success, but at least the Gipper knew when to cut his losses.
So happy birthday, Mr. President. You've gone up to that Great Ranch in the Sky, leaving liberals to like you more and some conservatives to like you less. But this onetime staffer of yours - and forever an admirer - sees you as the gold standard for presidents.
James P. Pinkerton's e-mail ad- dress is firstname.lastname@example.org .com.