Sitting high in the saddle
Ronald Reagan, last American politician to rise to icon for the ages, left a more complicated and controversial legacy than has been painted in the current rush to beatify him.That famous symbol for family values was the first divorced person to serve as president. He went to church less than infamous successor Bill Clinton. He was Hollywood.He gets the most credit for ending the Cold War, an inevitable defeat for the gone-broke Soviet Union. Who can forget “Mr. Gorbachev, tear this wall down” as he stood next to the Berlin Wall? Or the borrowing from the film industry that made him famous, as he called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” and had the dream of a “Star Wars” set of satellites equipped to shoot down nuclear missiles? He was the genuine, “make my day” “cowboy” who played the role of president like no one before him, save perhaps F.D.R.Yet he may have provided a seed for our problems today in the Middle East by turning tail and pulling out of Lebanon after terrorists killed a couple of hundred Marines in a bomb blast at their dorms while they slept. This may well be where Saddam first got the notion he could invade Kuwait with impunity, and where certain Arabians saw weakness in a soft America they could someday exploit.Reagan was a conservative’s conservative, yet he ran up the highest budget deficits in U.S. history.He’s remembered as a man of great decency and communication skills. But his administration was among the most riddled with corruption, real as well as alleged. And in regard to the Iran-Contra scandal that surfaced in his second term, well, he just couldn’t remember. The term “plausible deniability” might have been invented for him.Ronald Reagan stood for a lot of great things. He fit and shaped an era. And his name evokes a chain of events, including the elections of a couple of George Bushes, the second of whom has actively emulated his policies and cowboy style if not his ability to communicate or inspire.In history’s eyes, Reagan does indeed rise above the other presidents of the past half century. But let’s recognize that his image was clearer and truer than the man himself. He was not so simple a person as we might like to remember for the moment. Frankly, that’s not only fundamentally dishonest but it dishonors the full measure of the man, who would be the first to admit he – like the regular folks who embraced him – had plenty of flaws, too. His rise from dirt poverty in the prairie around tiny Dixon, Ill., to a robust version of the American Dream largely out West was a huge part of his charm.He was fully human in reality, but oh so much larger than life. D.R.