Michael Kinsley, in response to the current TIME cover story
, which claims that Obama is channeling Ronald Reagan, concludes in a recent LA Times op-ed that
Reagan, with his sunny disposition amid catastrophe, taught Americans that it will all be OK; don't worry about it. So for 30 years we didn't worry about it. Now we're worried. But it's a little late. I don't call that greatness, or worth emulating.
Claiming that Reagan was a "terrible president," Kinsley gleefully states, "I know, I know, you're not supposed to say this ..." as if he's somehow committing the ultimate sin in American politics and is simply tickled purple to be doing so. If Kinsley is merely titillated to be wee-weeing in the punchbowl, I can appreciate that -- the adulation for both politicians and celebrities does get quite absurd and annoying in this country -- but if he's trying to make a convincing argument here that Reagan was a terrible president, he doesn't succeed. In fact, one might question whether or not he's even seriously trying to make a case.
claim that Obama is emulating Reagan, Kinsley asks, "Where is the evidence?" I'm asking the same of Kinsley's claim that Reagan was terrible. For someone who induced America into not worrying for three full decades, Reagan possessed some paradoxically influential suckage.
Perhaps Kinsley needs a refresher in the history of the second half of the twentieth-century. While Kinsley does mention the Cold War in his snipe at Reagan on the Gipper's 100th birthday, just as he did for our 40th president's 90th birthday celebration
, his attitude seems to be that Reagan did nothing to help American strategy in that epic, ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. Even if true (I would heartily disagree), what did Reagan do that was terrible? Kinsley doesn't say. All I see is analysis that really doesn't make any sense, the only discernible purpose being to dismiss Reagan and his legacy.
Reagan could have done little to compete with the Soviets, but would this have put any pressure on the USSR? The answer is no. Reagan promoted keeping the pressure on because he believed America was on the right side of the struggle. He had confidence in the American way of life and ultimate failure of the USSR. Most Americans agreed with that strategy. Reagan knew that when the state socialism of the Soviet Union failed, America would and should be there, stronger than ever, taking the lead on the world stage... because American principles were right, and Soviet principles were wrong.
I am curious if Kinsely has published substantive works on Reagan or if he just enjoys trying to spoil the fun, all while saying "I don't mean to spoil the party ..." Of course he's trying to pour sour milk in people's Cheerios because while he claims Reagan was a terrible president, the content of his critiques don't deliver anything. Kinsley's main points are that Reagan's supporters credit Reagan with achieving things he said he believed in but didn't actually accomplish (reducing the size of government) or things he unwittingly accomplished (winning the Cold War). It looks like Kinsley's problem here is with Reagan's supporters and the reverence they pay to the man. Noted; just don't mask it as serious political analysis or unleash it after claiming Reagan was terrible.
Reading Kinsley's piece, I can't help but be reminded of that iconic television commercial from 1984, when Wendy's accused its competitors of being all fluff.
Kinsley has it all wrong, glaringly so on one foundational point regarding the American presidency. To wit: in one of his pieces around the Gipper's 90th birthday, a piece from Slate in 2001
, he states this about Reagan:
A great leader, too, in the general view — and on the question of leadership, the general view is, by definition, hard to dispute.
So the fact that Reagan was great leader "in the general view" is problematic how exactly? Apparently this fact is not enough to drag Reagan into the "not terrible" category of presidents. What determines a great president... the esoteric theorizing of journalists? My guess is that the "general view" is the uneducated, moronic view of the general public, the people who twice elected Reagan to the presidency. In Kinsley's view, the rabble believe the following about Reagan:
1) He ended the crisis of stagflation and malaise, restoring our country to prosperity and self-confidence. 2) He cut taxes and reduced the size of government. 3) He rebuilt America's military strength and won the Cold War. 4) He lent dignity to the office, unlike a more recent ex-president one could name.
Sounds good to me. I'm sure many Americans would agree. The American presidency now stands as the highest embodiment of the popular will and traditional American principles. This is no banana republic where radical warlords and generals vie for power via coups and emancipatory rhetoric; this is a constitutional republic created from the minds of a group of exceptional men. Reagan understood and appreciated that profound legacy. Reagan wasn't the guy with the "sunny disposition amid catastrophe", because the only catastrophe possible would be the destruction of America. In Reagan's mind, America was a miracle of history. He helped us embrace that belief as well.
I wasn't quite old enough to vote in 1984 but one moment during Reagan's second term is very clear in my mind: my best friend and I cheered like crazy when Reagan ordered air strikes on Libya in 1986 in response to Libya's involvement in the bombing of the La Belle discotheque in Berlin, an attack that killed two U.S. servicemen and injured over 100 more.
I remember we said, "Hell yeah! Carter never would have done this. Don't **** with us! RONBO!
" My friend and I were thirteen
when Carter left office and even at that tender age, we knew spinelessness and Sesame Street naivete when we saw it. True, in our youth we did not totally appreciate the ugly side of military strikes, but Reagan's resolve to strike Libya resonated with us, as unseasoned as we were in the realities of what these air strikes meant in human terms. We saw it as a cut and dry issue: you bomb us, we bomb you. Case closed, do not force us to do it again. In our view, government and the military existed to do the dirty things that the average American did not want to do... and we were thankful for it.
During the Iran hostage crisis, Carter sent our military on a failed, half-arsed mission with aging, faulty equipment and horrible logistics, while Reagan brought out the heavy artillery and a TCB attitude regarding Libya in 1986. He got the job done whereas Carter had failed. Apples and oranges, yes, but we weren't exactly thinking in terms of specifics; Carter sucked and Reagan rocked... and I considered myself a liberal Democrat in 1986. Terrible president? Yeah, ok. My only wish during the late 80s and early 90s was for a Democrat like Reagan.
It's almost poetic that that Van Halen got huge when Reagan took office. The early 80s were a time of excessive American cultural enthusiasm, as tacky as it may have been, and Ronald Reagan didn't judge us for our indulgences. We rocked, and nobody was going to get the better of us. Hubris? For some, yes. For others, just an optimistic world view that accepted limitless possibilities
and an expectation that it was okay for others to feel the exact same way, even though we'd kick their asses if we had to. It wasn't until the grunge era set in that sourpussing as a lifestyle came back into vogue
and America wasn't so much fun any longer.
Bottom line -- Carter: Mister Rogers meets Big Bird. Reagan: The Marlboro Man and Rambo rolled into one, a sort of sober David Lee Roth with family values. This was our perception and continues to be so for many Americans. We have an idea of what we think Reagan would do now
if he were president, and we're pretty sure it's not what President Obama is doing.
Whatever our perceptions of Reagan, they are important as an ideal regarding the presidency. If Reagan is popular now for the reasons stated above, it is because many Americans want someone like him in the White House. The next great president will draw favorable opinion from a wide range of the populace. That is what Reagan did. It is what Obama has failed to do. George W. Bush largely failed too, except in the national crisis environment after 9-11, although even many of Bush's then detractors have a newfound respect for his steadfast conviction in what he was doing. Many feel we are in a national crisis now concerning our uber-bloated federal government that seems to be hardwired for irresponsible spending. A large portion of America yearns for a black and white, organic moral focus
instead of nuanced mumbo jumbo. Yes, some people in America deride such black and white thinking as simplistic, but it's how successful people run their personal and professional lives, as boring as that may seem. It didn't fly when Bill Clinton tried to bring the meaning of "is" into question, and it's not working when the Obama administration tries to finesse blatant doublespeak into an official message to the American people. (See "State of the Union, 2011" for more on that.)
History judges presidents from several decades' distance or more; the American public judges presidents based on perceptions that can last through the ages, some of which are prescribed by journalists. What Dr. Kinsley seemingly offers here is a partisan placebo and frankly, a good portion of America is sick and tired of this type of intellectual malpractice.
Look for the next hit piece on Reagan in 10 years.