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June 05, 2004


Ronald Reagan, more than any American seemed utterly invulnerable. He was the Teflon President. I was not one of those who fell under his spell but I do appreciate how he changed the nation.

Whenever I am inclined to think of Reagan in a positive light, which is better than half the time, I think of the days before him as cynical and defeatist. The image that comes to mind is that of the prototypical 70s action movie, especially those cheesy ones with bad guys on dirt bikes. 'Escape From New York' was a pre-Reagan movie. 'The Warriors' was a pre-Reagan movie. In the pre-Reagan days, there was nothing America could do right, our self-image was that of a place doomed to nuclear armageddon or polluted wasteland. Our future was Love Canal or the bombed out South Bronx or 1984.

But we have to think of the days after Reagan as that of a truly changed nation. One that looked into its soul and decided that it had a can-do attitude. That sometimes it took a little arrogance and a swift kick in the pants to get things done. That it was worth taking the risk and going with a gut reaction.

It took a long time for America to right itself, and while we are myth-making, it's probably reasonable for me to consider my own attitudes as somewhat typical of the times.

My political education began with reading the newspaper in class. In the 7th grade we learned of the President's disgrace. We read transcripts of the tapes. Nixon was what the presidency was all about. I tell you, these days I truly regret the kind of bullshit education I got in the 7th and 8th grade. I have to name her, Eileen Sweet, the kind of white liberal.. argh! Another time. Another time. But the damage was done to me personally, and that was the kind of world we lived in during the mid 70s.

My life's most embarassing moment came at hearing the news of the attempt on Reagan's life. I was working downtown LA at City National Bank onf 6th and Olive and my boss announced that somebody tried to shoot Reagan. I blurted out 'Did they get him?'. I didn't have any particular animosity towards Reagan. I just know I didn't vote for him. I voted for Anderson. Anderson made more sense to me. So the cynicism was still clinging to me. The System was wrong, it needed subversive heroes like Billy Jack or Bruce Lee because it was inherently corrupt.

Those years after the oil shocks and the energy crisis and the price freezes and the runaway inflation had the business world crazy. But I got into banking because I wanted to understand money. If I hadn't learned how to program computers in highschool, I would have become a loan officer and learned credit analysis. I had seen the bigshot bankers weild power over businessmen in the days that short term interest rates were over 16%. I remember how everyone watched the prime rate rise and fall as if their lives depended on it. So when Reagan presided over the recovery, I understood what a miracle had been accomplished.

By the time Reagan was up for re-election in 1984 our man Mondale was already a loser. I didn't hate America, but I hated the empty-headedness of the flag waving patriots. I didn't need to believe in America so much as my contemporaries seemed to, and in Reagan they had found a reason to be proud once again. I participated in the pride, and while in college those days I took a hard look at the Left was babbling about. At the time I was reading everything by Thomas Sowell that I could get my hands on. I was fascinated and entranced. I thought like a neocon and didn't mind the label. But I also could not resist the opportunity to work for the Rainbow Coalition. The conflict was clear, and yet both things seemed right. How could we keep on talking about Willie Horton if America's future was to be bright?

Still we seemed, in the early 80s still unsure of our strength. But I was always ready to give the government the benefit of the doubt. While many folks around me believed that everything Reagan said was a lie, I didn't see things that way. In fact conservatives emerging like Bill Bennett were downright inspiring. In my junior year, I was something nobody could quite put together. I loved Ayn Rand, Malcolm X, Wynton Marsalis, Run DMC, Henry Miller and William F. Buckley. Only now at this writing do I see that I liked people who came with the unflinching hardline. I was very attracted to people who said It's like that and that's the way it is. And that's the way the Reagan government was. 1984 came and went and the world hadn't ended.

My faith in the boastful hardline of Reagan broke with the 'war' in Grenada. But there can be no denying that this was a new kind of engagement. Going in, I supported it. When the LATimes reported that the purported 10,000 foot runway was not even close to that length, that was the first strike. When the weapons cache shown on television showed rusted old Russian rifles, that was the second strike. But when I learned that the Commerce Department had authorized American contractor to work on that runway, I was in a kind of shock. How could that be?

And yet what remained was the ascendance of the business community. Corporations were changing in the 80s from stodgy old boy clubs to dynamic new entities. The Reagan Era created and fed Peter Drucker, Tom Peters and Alvin Toffler. This bright new enthusiasm was the result of the Reagan economy, and while the Government might not be so trustworthy, the economy was lovely.

Ronald Reagan reinvented the future. He had the kind of attitude which was unreconciled with reality and yet it was what we all needed to hear. Yes he was a cowboy. He made people afraid that America might do something crazy. He reminded us that we could. He was ready to unleash the beast and he put everyone on notice that America was going to have its way in the world. That was his great gift. Things could be uncomplicated and good.

Whereas Carter created the disastrous B-1, one got the feeling that Reagan's military actually could begin bombing in five minutes. So when he stared down the Soviets through the SALT II, you could feel the relief. It was almost miraculous that he could play such hardball and win.

Reagan also reminded us quite painfully about government power and taught me a lesson. The lesson was that America is not the government and that even if you can't trust the government, you can trust America. That's the lesson I should have learned in 1974, but it took Iran-Contra to bring it home. There were three people in the Reagan Administration who retained my respect throughout. They were David Stockman, Bill Bennett and George P. Schultz. Schultz most of all. Watching these men perform amid the contradictions of Reagan proved to me that the System could function properly with the right people, that there reasons to believe even as one's faith was hobbled.

I viewed Iran Contra with some sophistication. And yet it stretched my credulity. During those same days I began to pay attention to world conflict. I learned of South Africa's engagement in Namibia. I came to terms with Schultz's insistence on Constructive Engagement. We went back and forth over Central America. I read an Amnesty report about the 'shiny kiddie bomblets' in Afghanistan - mines decorated with toys designed to cripple children. We scorned Khadaffi. We lived in fear of Beirut. We boycotted the Evil Empire's Olympic Games. We watched Maggie Thatcher and her Tories with our mouths open.

It just seemed impossible that America could be so right in the world with such a creature as Ronald Reagan as the leader, a man who laid wreathes at the wrong place at the wrong time. The man who seemed incapable of matching wits with Gorbachev, and yet produced victory in Reykjavik. He was the man who demanded and who got that wall torn down.

To me, Reagan was emblematic of the nation because he didn't get bogged down. He was loved because he gave a lot of people exactly what they wanted in a president. His was a kind of leadership that cared more about America than about his party. We watched people do for him because they wanted to do for America, and he had no problem serving up that role. He was genuinely inspiring and wore the suit well. He was frustrating and successful, enigmatic and plain. He was the right man at the right time.

Was he a shadow president? Perhaps. To my eyes, he demonstrated what presiding meant. He got other folks working. He had good instincts to get out front and set a direction. If there was dirty work involved like lying to the American public, he 'let other people do that.' He tested the limits of checks and balances and revived the idea of a powerful president. He revitalized the Anglo-American bond. He gave conservatives a new lease on life without pandering to the Religious Right. We'll be talking about him for a long time.

Posted by mbowen at June 5, 2004 05:21 PM

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Mourning Ronald Reagan differently and more diffidently. from Negrophile
Several black lawmakers said they had mixed reactions to Reagan's death, though many were sensitive about disparaging a deceased president. "It's not really mourning. We recognize him as the 40th president of the United States," said Rep. Diane Watson ... [Read More]

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