Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Some still fall for Reagan’s fiscal charm |

Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Some still fall for Reagan’s fiscal charm

Jack Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

Artisans fashion fine paint brushes from rough pigs’ bristles. President Ronald Reagan practiced a similar fiscal alchemy: painting a picture of sound economics using contrived statistics that don’t add up.

The president didn’t lie about his faulty fiscal theory. Nor did he think he used elastic language to support it. As biographer Lou Cannon pointed out, Reagan employed a way of looking at statistics that always supported what he already believed. “He didn’t know how much he didn’t know,” wrote Cannon (Reagan, p.373).

Critics err who caricature Reagan as an amiable dunce whose conversation consisted of homey jokes and anecdotes lifted from Reader’s Digest. The president read widely. He was blessed with an alert mind. He carefully edited many presidential addresses and hand-wrote large portions of them. He was blessed, as was presidential predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, with a photographic memory.

Reagan refrained from letting fiscal facts lead to new economic insights. Repetition of questionable statistics made him sound convincing. His use of simple metaphors, graphic examples and dramatic symbols reduced complex budget figures to simple equations that didn’t add up but sounded plausible.

Critics who accuse Reagan of intentionally acting from a faulty fiscal script don’t know the man. He believed his economic playbook was authentic and worth sharing.

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Biographer Cannon reports Reagan’s penchant for inventing simplistic explanations for complex financial trends. He writes how Reagan spared his mind from being “exposed to rigorous challenge. As a young man, he had failed to form the useful habit of subjecting his dearest assumptions to intellectual examination. In some respects, he was a prisoner of his gifts. He remembered what he had read without effort, which tempted him to regurgitate information and anecdotes rather than reflect on ideas. His intuition was so sound that he relied on it too heavily, letting it lead him down paths where intuition should not go alone. Most of the time, President Reagan was intuitively keen but intellectually lazy.”

When forced to face new insights about how the federal budget really worked, Reagan ducked rigorous homework. He turned his back on statistical reports and resorted to doodling.

What irresponsible fiscal vision did Reagan endorse? He lowered taxes. He restrained government’s regulatory power over Wall Street. He mortgaged the future with a huge military buildup. He believed the poor should be helped, primarily by personal charity through soup kitchens and citizens’ altruism. These 19th century policies for aiding the poor served as Reagan’s chief social welfare channels.

When the economy during Reagan’s presidency rose like a rocket, when federal debt ballooned and when the savings-and-loan debacle spiraled out of control, Reagan took a page from the script he had memorized. He acted as if such fiscal failures didn’t happen.

Today, President Reagan still draws many converts. They sign pledges to never raise taxes. They cut social services. They reject increases in most federal spending. And they conclude that this irresponsible fiscal formula balances the budget.

What’s deeply etched in Reaganites’ souls is the heartfelt eloquence the president exuded when he looked straight into TV cameras and recited his economic credo. When he was a New Deal Democrat, Reagan mastered this technique from his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But after rooting out Communists as president of the Screen Actors Guild during the early years of the Cold War, Reagan veered sharply toward the political right. In 1962, he affiliated with the Republican Party and aligned himself with Barry Goldwater’s


Reagan’s mastery of communicating a faulty fiscal script is reminiscent of the role Chicago Mayor Carter Henry Harrison played prior to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. He plied the minds of dignitaries with 200 barrels of whisky. Reagan’s communication skills worked the same magic as did Mayor Harrison’s Jack Daniels. It loosened resistance to his bogus fiscal policies. Opposition melted.

Like Reagan, Mayor Harrison had a special knack of connecting with blue-collar workers. “Even his opponents recognized that Harrison, despite his privileged roots, made an intensely appealing candidate of the city’s lesser tier,” writes Eric Larson in his popular history of murder and magic at the 1993 World’s Fair in “The Devil in the White City,” p. 213. “He was magnetic. He was able and willing to talk about anything and had a way of making himself the center of conversation. ‘His friends all noticed it,’ said Joseph Medill, once an ally but later Harrison’s most ardent opponent, ‘they would laugh and smile about it and call it Carter Harrisonia.'”

Magnetic charm wrapped around an innocence that shows no guile.

Still, Reagan’s economic house was built on “shifting sand, not solid rock” (Matthew 7: 25-26). Today, political hucksters still sell this fiscal real estate to naive investors in Reaganomics.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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