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wSaturday, June 05, 2004

DEFENDER OF DRUNKEN SAILORS: Well... I got a tip yesterday morning that Ronald Reagan was in a bad way and might not make it throught the next day. Looks like that little bird was on to something becaue today brings news of Reagan's death, at 93, of various "complications." It's not that words fail me here but it would be nice to have access to whatever he had that made rooms light up when he entered them. Sure, he was a great president, arguably the first or second greatest of the twentieth century. And sure, he was an "optimist," whatever that means. He also struck me as a kind of tragic figure.

His father was a lush who couldn't hold a job. As a kid Reagan moved around so much that he developed a certain disattachment from people that he was never quite able to get past -- he was great at inspiring people but rarely close to anyone. His first marriage ended in divorce. His second one was to Nancy. His family wasn't as screwed up as some but they were never close, and the two tracks didn't help, and Reagan was rather aloof as a father. He was a decent actor but not a superstar, and Hollywood was not so kind to him. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, he negotiated perpetual royalty payments for television and other broadcasts but, in an act of disinterest that would be unheard of today, he exempted his own movies from these payments. It must have chafed in the as Hollywood stars railed against his administration; they could afford to do so in part because Reagan had put them first when it counted.

When Reagan proved successful, on his third attempt, at securing the Republican nomination in 1980, some thought the then 69-year-old didn't have it any more. He wasn't the only conservative candidate in the race and his preference for broad strokes over fine details made him a target for all the smart people to sniff at.

Of course, they were very wrong. Reagan beat Carter even with John Anderson siphoning off a lot of moderate votes and the Libertarian candidate drawing a million votes. And without replaying a lot of the battles of the 1980s, a few facts are worthy of note:

1) When Reagan took office the top marginal tax rate was nearly 70 percent; when he left it was 35.

2) SDI, Star Wars, whatever you want to call it, did exactly what he wanted it to: It turned the arms race into a spending race. By beefing up the military and then by promising to neutralize the one trump card the U.S.S.R. could play -- that is, to rain down fire from above -- he forced the Soviet Union to finally confront the fact that it couldn't compete. In the 1950s, Khrushchev had promised to bury us; Reagan showed a spooked Politburo that it would probably be the other way around.

3) He was impolitic enough to call the Soviet Union an Evil Empire (it was) and tell Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" (as it turned out, he didn't have to).

I don't mean to paint Reagan as a sort of secular saint, as some conservatives are given to doing, or gloss over some of the stupid policies his administration pursued, or the stupid scandals it found itself caught up in. But, get real: He was the right man for the time.

Back to the tragedy bit for a minute: I find it sad and tragic not only that old age has finally accomplished what a sniper's bullet couldn't manage, but also that Reagan spent roughly the last decade of his life wading further and further into a mental fog that finally swallowed him whole. I mean, George H.W. Bush was a bad president who bounces grandchildren off of his knee, writes books, and mucks about with his son's foreign policy. Bill Clinton was a bad and indifferent president who is soon to have a bestseller, and may some day end up the first First Husband. Reagan restructured the economy and backed down the Soviet Empire and then...

Sigh. The other week, I posted the snarky first half of a review of a book on the faith of Ronald Reagan. Here is the rather more adulatory second half:

Fascination with Reagan's faith is nothing new, of course, and Kengor's God and Ronald Reagan isn't the first book to carry the title. Conservative Christians, incensed by Jimmy Carter's ham-fisted attempt to force racial quotas on private religious elementary and high schools, provided the margin of Reagan's victory in 1980, and they never let him forget it. Several books came off the presses during the Eighties that played up the Gipper's statements on religion, his conversion experience, his opposition to abortion and secularism, and his belief that the Bible was the inspired word of God. However, there appears of late to be a renewed interest in Reagan's spirituality. God and Ronald Reagan only narrowly beat Mary Beth Brown's Hand of Providence: The Strong and Quiet Faith of Ronald Reagan (WND Books, slated for a late March release) into print.

This suddenly exotic faith grew out of Reagan's life. Son of a nominally Catholic father and a pious fundamentalist mother, he grew up in the Disciples of Christ church of Dixon, Illinois. There, he honed his oratorical skills as reader of Scripture, got his first taste of acting, and tried his hand at leadership. He taught the boys' Sunday school class for over two years, relinquishing it only when he went to Eureka College. Many members of the local congregation believed Reagan would become a preacher, and he nearly married the minister's daughter, whose unexplained nickname was "Muggs." From the picture Kengor paints, in solid workmanlike strokes, Reagan sounds not unlike some of the Baptist youths I grew up with while the 40th president was watching over the Oval Office.

Though Reagan grew away from his religious upbringing, he never repudiated it. Kengor makes a decent case that certain aspects of the Disciples of Christ—its anti-Communism; its free-church skepticism of the federal government; its emphasis on the horrible this-worldly effects of sin; its insistence that faith, hope, and charity could lay waste to any problem; its belief that God had a special plan for each and every one of us—provided the major themes of Reagan's presidency.

Kengor also sheds light on another mystery of Reagan's faith. In the '84 re-election campaign, conservative journalist Fred Barnes ambushed the president with a question about why, as a man of faith, he didn't make it to church on Sundays. Reagan said that, well, after the shooting, the Secret Service informed him that the security measures would impose an undue burden on a congregation. In truth, he hadn't regularly gone to church for a good many years and didn't appear to be troubled about this. Kengor explains that because of the huge number of moves as a young child, Reagan didn't make friends easily and was more introspective than most. Before the Disciples of Christ provided some stability and community in his teen years, the young Dutch conceived of his relationship with the Almighty in entirely solitary terms: God was there for him when no one else could be. For Reagan, church was but one possible manifestation of that relationship, ending Communism another. [more]

posted by Jeremy at 9:42 PM