08 June 2004

Piling on

"Everybody Loves Reagan"

That's all I've seen on television this week.  And it's only Tuesday.

I was never much a fan of Reagan, especially when he was president.  I always felt that his presidency was just his biggest stage, that it was his greatest role as an actor.  I never felt he was being genuine about anything.

I was 13 when he was elected, and 21 when he left office.  I wasn't old enough to vote in either of the elections that he won, though I doubt I would have voted for him if I could have.  But like it or not, as the president during the years that I remember as the transition from kid to adult, he had a strong influence on me.

Like any good politician, Reagan had an agenda, and by getting himself elected at a time when America was perceived as weak as it had been in a generation, he was able to convince a majority of the nation that his agenda was the right way to go.  When I think of Reagan in the early 80's, I picture him riding in on a silver horse with his sword drawn, daring the Big Bad Wolf that was the Soviet Union to go to battle against him.  Then he'd look into the camera and grunt like Tarzan: "Communists evil, grr..."

For a few years there I was convinced that Reagan was going to get us all vaporized.  I'd read about all the new missiles that both we and the Soviets were deploying, and then he'd be on the news calling the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire."  Remember when he joked that he'd "outlawed Russia forever, we begin bombing in five minutes"?  Funny stuff.  His shtick kept us at Def Con 372 for two years.

Ah, but I come to praise Ronnie, not to bury him...as soon as I remind myself that he had no domestic policy for anything except tax cuts and military spending.  He did more to create the divide between the haves and the have-nots and was truly horrible with minority issues.  And it took him almost two full terms to admit that AIDS was a problem.

But I digress.  Reagan gets credit for two big things: the US winning the Cold War, and the fall of communism along Eastern Europe.  My opinions of that have evolved throughout the years.  I think Reagan benefited from the fact that the older generation of Soviet leaders couldn't stop dying.  First Brezhnev, then Chernenko, and finally Andropov.  And that brought Gorbachev.

I give Reagan all the credit possible for working with Gorbachev and changing his opinions, and more importantly his rhetoric, towards the defense buildup.  Reagan went from overseeing a huge defense increase to a man who worked for disarmament, and if he had not been so dedicated to the idea of SDI (Star Wars missile defense), he and Gorbachev might have eliminated both countries arsenals.  Reagan's willingness to change his mind (can you say "flip flop"???) brought the world back from the fears of a generation, my generation, that we would not get the chance to see us survive long enough to make a difference.  In 1998 when I was in Reykjavik, Iceland I took a walk down to the home where Reagan and Gorbachev met twelve years earlier, and while the house was not open to the public, I took a walk around it outside and remembered how I felt reading about their accomplishments there along with their disappointments (it was at Reykjavik that Reagan's refusal to give up SDI caused a prolonged stalemate).

I may never agree that the Cold War was "won."  I think it was a threat that was eliminated, and I am willing to give Reagan as much credit for that as anyone else involved, though Gorbachev must receive equal credit as well.

However, it drives me nuts that Reagan gets as much credit for ending communism in Eastern Europe that he does.  Giving him the credit for the fall of the Soviet Bloc is an insult to the people of those places that had the courage to demonstrate and gather in public despite the possibility that their actions would bring tanks into their cities, as it did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.  Reagan's words for some reason outweigh the bravery of thousands, and I don't understand why.  Communism left that part of the world due to economic and social opportunities, not because of an American president.

Reagan's death has reminded me of his willingness to compromise, use diplomacy and seek peaceful solutions to conflict.  Ironic, I suppose, because we are living in a time in this country where the sitting president does none of that.  I find that I would prefer a man like Reagan in the White House now, instead of the pseudo-cowboy who currently resides there.

I will stomach the rest of this week, and the inevitable tribute that will be a part of the Republican convention this summer.  I will not be surprised if images of Reagan show upin a few RNC advertisements on television this fall, as we live in times where we must politicize everything.  But let me also say this: many of Reagan's Republican contemporaries will praise him continuously this week, and then go back to being steadfastly against stem cell research.  I do not understand that.  No man, whether ex-president or ex-convict, deserves to spend the last years of his life as Reagan did.  We should do everything we can to further scientific technology so that we can eliminate the suffering that Mr. Reagan and his family had to endure.

Anyway, in hindsight, while I disagreed mostly with his domestic agenda, Reagan was essentially the right man at the right time to deal with the foreign policy challenges, and for that I find that I respect the man as the leader of this nation.  He has grown on me as I have aged and have seen more of the world.      

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