Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Hail to the chief bogeyman

In life, he was ridiculed and reviled. So what's changed

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Among modern celebrities, death is a great career move. Usually, however, you have to die young: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Diana Spencer all redeemed misspent lives by early deaths. JFK could never have been sanctified without martyrdom: his presidency was bound for immersion in the Mekong swamps, his reputation heading for exposure in sex scandals. But when a lively flame dies, smoke gets in critics' eyes. To achieve the same sort of romantic adulation by dying at 93, when there is hardly any light in the embers of life, is a remarkable achievement. How has Ronald Reagan managed it? How come all the critics who, when he was alive, saw him as a bogey or a joke, are silent now?

Among modern celebrities, death is a great career move. Usually, however, you have to die young: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Diana Spencer all redeemed misspent lives by early deaths. JFK could never have been sanctified without martyrdom: his presidency was bound for immersion in the Mekong swamps, his reputation heading for exposure in sex scandals. But when a lively flame dies, smoke gets in critics' eyes. To achieve the same sort of romantic adulation by dying at 93, when there is hardly any light in the embers of life, is a remarkable achievement. How has Ronald Reagan managed it? How come all the critics who, when he was alive, saw him as a bogey or a joke, are silent now?

They are not restrained by respect for death. That convention no longer counts for anything on the op-ed pages, where exhibitionists relish the attention they get by defying decency. Polly Toynbee took a hatchet to Auberon Waugh's fresh corpse. The buzzards feasted off François Mitterrand's bones. The detractors sharpened their pens before the dirt rattled on Mother Teresa's coffin. Saints are no longer sacrosanct. Heroes are iconoclasts' bait. It is now almost obligatory for obituarists to say something snide. Yet those who come to bury Reagan also, without exception, seem to praise him. The explanation lies beyond convention, in the realm of his achievements and in the trajectory of his critics' retreat.

He was a bogey to the left. His unshakeable - indeed, uncritical - faith in free markets widened the poverty gap. His notion of social policy was to encourage thrift. His dogmas of tax-cuts and "small government" left welfare threadbare. His cosiness with corporate America fuelled the overbearing, polluting, fat-cat capitalism that became a curse of the world. His emphasis on deregulation licensed greed. With America's military-industrial sector he was an open-handed glad-hander, nourishing a bloated military establishment and armour-plating US global hegemony. He and his wife had Hollywood values, which overvalued celebrity. In Reagan's America, glitz spread like pox.

No one now denounces these excesses, because the left is virtually voiceless. The shrinkage of the left is the measure of Reagan's success; the enemies he overcame have not recovered from their defeat. Everyone who matters is, broadly speaking, a Reaganite in economics: even the anti-globalisers are calling for freer international trade, not for a return to command economies or the sclerosis of state capitalism. There are no major media in the West that will give column space or airtime to advocates of the over-regulated economies Reagan denounced. When editors stopped commissioning anti-Reaganite articles, they were themselves succumbing to the power of the market. Consumers will not pay to read or hear such stuff.

Reagan was a joke to intellectuals. We mocked him because he was dim. Indeed, his greatest achievement was perhaps to show that you can be stupid and successful. Since his day, egalitarianism has eroded discrimination against the academically challenged - the only form of discrimination still tolerated in employment and social policy. Now, grade inflation is gradually integrating the unintelligent at every level of power and responsibility. America has acquired, in George W Bush, probably its dumbest president - encouraged, I suspect, by Reagan's example into thinking that intellectual incompetence should be no disqualification for the job. Of course, Reagan had a kind of wisdom that eludes the present incumbent: he was clever enough to know his own limitations and shrewd enough to recognise good advice. But part of his legacy is that clever people, who are still preponderant in the media, no longer look down on his ilk. In death, therefore, he is underided.

Of course, Reagan's martyrdom began long before his death, when he announced, with memorable dignity, that he was facing a future of personal disintegration with a mixture of resignation and fortitude. Alzheimer's disease is a scourge everyone can sympathise with, because in the modern West almost everyone knows someone who is suffering the consequences. But Reagan was already on the way to apotheosis, because of the historical circumstances of his presidency. The iron curtain corroded. The Cold War chilled out. The Soviet leadership ceased to believe in socialism. The satellite states zoomed out of orbit. Communist parties all over Europe were dissolved or re-christened. The "Soviet bloc" seemed to go straight from the world of Marx to that of the Marx brothers, with bewildering new states bubbling like Duck Soup.

Reagan was not the sole begetter of these changes. During the global inflation of the 1970s, the satellite economies slipped out of dependence on Moscow into indebtedness to Western bankers. In the 1980s, Russia's "Afghan ulcer" sapped Soviet strength. The system could not afford the loss of blood or money in war against the mujahedin. What Reagan called the "evil empire" was unsustainable in the long run. The history of Eastern Europe is full of huge but short-lived empires, of which the Soviet was the last. That is the nature of geopolitics in a vast region with neither clear natural frontiers nor good natural communications. Communism proved a feeble ideology in the face of nationalism and religion, neither of which it could ever repress.

As the edifice of Soviet rule mouldered, all the old worms came out of the crooked timber of humanity. John Paul II was probably more influential in inspiring resistance than Reagan. Returnees from the Afghan war were probably Russia's most effective propagandists for change. Mikhail Gorbachev lit back fires from the Kremlin: after Reagan retired, they became a conflagration which engulfed Eastern Europe.

Still, it was to Reagan's credit that he grasped the historic opportunity to see off an old enemy. He pursued it single-mindedly, and harried and hounded his quarry. The accelerated pace of the arms race outstripped Russia's paying power. Though the effects were equivocal for America, too, as defence spending spiralled towards Star Wars, this contributed to the Russian leadership's collapsed morale. Americans who felt gratitude to Reagan for their deliverance from the Soviet menace, and for the world's escape from the shadow of mutually assured destruction, had a point.

But does this really count for anything any more? Reagan gave America an opportunity to refashion a "new world order". After the First World War, President Wilson had a similar chance, and blew it. After 1945 another opportunity was lost. When the Cold War ended, the circumstances were the most auspicious ever. The disparity of power gave the United States a virtually free hand. But since Reagan's time, the advantage has been squandered. America has been left in a hopeless role, policing the world largely at its own expense, without a morally defensible, intellectually coherent or practically credible basis for its policy. The world is still waiting to know how American super-power is going to benefit humankind.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has alienated vast swaths of the globe, forfeited old friendships, mired America in unwinnable wars, and made most problems - from pollution to terrorism - worse. Perhaps the real reason why the world has so surprisingly united in Reagan's praise is that he is no longer president. He has the great merit of not being George W Bush.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is Professor of Global Environmental History at Queen Mary, University of London

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