The President of the Eternal Summer
Tech Central Station
It is always the summer of 1983, and Ronald Reagan is always president.
Everyone measures the world against their impressions and perceptions from that first summer of awareness; that first summer when that big world Out There intrudes upon your cozy little corner of innocence. For me it was the year of The Day After (scary; could that happen?) and KAL Flight 007 (those evil Russians!) and Grenada (America: 1, Bad Guys: 0) -- and the summer of Return of the Jedi and Atari computers and buying comic books at the 7-11 with my own allowance. I was the president of the Ataris and comic books; Ronald Reagan was the president of the rest.
In all the presidential lists -- in encyclopedias, textbooks, and newspapers -- he was listed as President Ronald Reagan, 1981-. The open space after the hyphen would never close. He was, he would always be, the President of Right Now.
Jimmy Carter is a snapshot in my mind of weakness and indeterminacy. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, I asked my mother if America was the toughest nation in the world. (Little boys understand the merits of institutions in terms of toughness.) My mother said that yes, we were, but we were getting a little weaker each year, and the Russians were getting a little stronger. I remember a mental picture of an America growing more helpless by the day, as fat men sweated and stammered in front of news cameras.
It was different with Reagan.
Reagan mastered the art of oratory in the American register. Americans resonate to a style of expression that is all but impossible to master. It is reverent, but non-denominational; principled, but not moralistic; patriotic, but not jingoistic; simple, but not simplistic; disdainful of governmental excess, but respectful towards governmental duty. It echoes the cadences of the Gettysburg Address, which in turn echoes the Old Testament prophets, via the King James Bible. Every modern president has struggled to master this way of speaking. To Reagan it came easily. Even the finest orations of his would-be rivals -- Cuomo, Jackson, Kennedy -- never spoke to the American psyche as clearly as Reagan's words did.
Like George W. Bush after him, Reagan evoked visceral detestation in many of his opponents. Yet few of the slanders leveled against Reagan ever caught the public's notice -- largely because Reagan's gentle persona made those slanders seem ridiculous. The most common slanders attacked his intelligence. No one who had heard Reagan in the Panama Canal debate, or read his articles in the Human Life Review, could seriously believe that Reagan lacked a keen intellect. He was not an intellectual, true, but only intellectuals are foolish enough to believe that intelligence is coterminous with intellectualism. He read books, but not the books that the intellectuals read. He wrote articles, but not articles that the intellectuals read. If God put the foolish things on the earth to confound the wise, Reagan was a "fool" in God's good service.
From a libertarian perspective, Reagan's legacy is more positive than negative. His support of supply-side tax cuts fueled seven years of sensational growth that discredited the tired nostrums of socialists and Keynesians alike. His toughness during the PATCO strike dealt a blow to the political might of organized labor from which it never recovered. Although Reagan never rolled back the welfare state to the degree that classic liberals might have hoped, his passionate defense of limited government as an ideal changed the terms of the debate in Washington. No longer could Republicans and Democrats blithely assume that the solution to every problem was a new government program. The Reagan Revolution denied from big government the easy, lazy legitimacy that had attached to federal action since the Great Society initiatives.
Prior to Reagan, the Republican Party was the party of Okay, But Maybe Not As Much. Nothing distinguished its economic policies from those of the Democrats except tired griping about deficits and an easily-surmounted sense of restraint about government intrusion into business. Reagan showed that Republicans could run as unapologetic tax-cutters and budget-cutters, and win. That lesson would be forgotten and re-learned over the years, but some of it endures: most Republicans now recognize that small government is a good unto itself.
Internationally, Reagan's success was extraordinary. He leveraged America's strengths -- its great leaders, its matchless economy, and its humane system of governance -- into total victory in the Cold War. Lately, everyone claims to have played a role in the Cold War triumph. To hear the revisionists tell the story, America's victory was preordained. But in Reagan's day, the very thought of "victory" was unfashionable. In 1983, millions of respectable people -- including many politicians, and at least one current presidential candidate -- rejected Reagan's military build-up, preferring the illusory achievements of endless negotiation. To repeat the names of the conflicts is to remember the bitter division: the nuclear freeze movement; the MX missile, the Trident submarines, Star Wars. In the summer of 1983, many Americans believed that Communism was just as valid a system of governance as our own. Carter summed up this attitude when he warned us about an "inordinate fear of communism."
Reagan heeded that warning. He never feared Communism, "inordinately" or otherwise. He disdained elegant retreats and dispirited co-existence in favor of victory through strength. Was this victory inevitable? A certainty? Ask the Afghanis.
Reagan's legacy is not wholly commendable. Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor are dubious gifts to the cause of liberty. The size of government never shrank under Reagan. And the Iran-Contra "scandal" brought Reagan's legislative agenda screeching to a halt.
Some scandal. We sold Iran weapons with which to defeat Saddam Hussein's minions, and then used the money to undermine a Central American dictator who was later thrown out of office by popular acclaim. Reagan's "scandal" encompassed greater wisdom than the policies of his critics.
I cannot assess Reagan entirely by cerebral criteria. To hear his voice in the montages is to be a boy again in 1980s America: "I paid for this microphone." "There you go again." "Youth and inexperience." "Tear down this wall!" "My fellow Americans..." In the summer of 1983, words like these drifted into the homes of my generation, sandwiched between the cartoons and the game shows, and those words taught us what it meant to be a President in America.
Little boys are fools; they assume that presidents are gods, with unfettered ability to set the world aright, if they have the will to do so. And we are not so different than little boys; we want our presidents to be good men, who love their country and not their own power and prestige. We also want our presidents to be great men, with virtues and strengths that reflect the virtues and strengths we impute to ourselves and to our nation. Reagan made us believe that he was as good and great as we wanted him to be. And it didn't hurt that, for the most part, he was that good and great.
It was inconceivable that Reagan would ever lecture us about "malaise," as Carter did. Even in sad moments such as the Challenger disaster, he showed us a grandness of purpose that allowed a ray of light to pierce the gloom. In a mid-80s installment of Berke Breathed's much-missed comic strip, Bloom County, a dejected character shuffles from his lonely roof top to watch some old Reagan speeches, "for dramatic renewal of purpose." Reagan was good at renewing purpose. He was a president of summers, not winters.
The summer of 1983 ended for Ronald Reagan on Saturday night, and the sunset was long and sad before the darkness came. But the summer sun shines on us today. And as we are freer than we were before, and richer than we might have been, we should remember a decent man on the television in years past, who protected an America that was as good as little boys dream it to be.
"God bless America," Reagan told us. It is always the summer of 1983, and we are always blessed.