Godfrey Hodgson: The true legacy of Ronald Reagan

Look at the closed minds and hard hearts of the conservatives who staff this administration

Share
Related Topics

It was foolish, on both sides of the Atlantic, to write off Ronald Reagan as a cowboy or a B-picture actor. Reagan had only a few big ideas: essentially, I will argue, just two or three, big but vague.

It was foolish, on both sides of the Atlantic, to write off Ronald Reagan as a cowboy or a B-picture actor. Reagan had only a few big ideas: essentially, I will argue, just two or three, big but vague. But he also had an immense armoury of the skills a politician needs in a media age. I once interviewed "Pat" Brown, a brilliantly successful governor of California whom Reagan thrashed when he ran against him in 1966. "I thought he was just a second-rate actor," Brown told me ruefully: "I was never so wrong in my life."

If it was foolish to underestimate Reagan, though, there is no reason to give way to the absurd over-praise, energetically conducted by the usual chorus of conservative cheerleaders, that has surfaced in many tributes since his death. Mount Rushmore should be left in peace a little longer.

I followed Reagan for several months while making a television biography of him in 1988-1989, during which I interviewed him and his friends at length. It was easy to dislike some positions he took, but it was hard not to like him. When he sent me a note saying how much he had enjoyed our meetings, I had to keep a tight hold on professional scepticism.

Reagan's secret was that he knew how to make both the individuals he met and the whole American people feel good about themselves, and therefore about him. And his experience as a propagandist for General Electric put him in training for media politics. For years, he sold a folksy version of the capitalist creed at factory gates all across blue-collar America.

Reagan knew what he believed, and he knew who he was. His charm was dignified as well as debonair. Olivia de Havilland, who went out with him when they were both young, told me he had the manners of an archduke. George W Bush, the born-again patrician, is not always a gentleman: Ronald Reagan, son of an alcoholic shoe salesman in small Midwestern towns, had better manners than most princes. All the more reason to take a hard look at the claims made on his behalf. To rank him with Thomas Jefferson, as some have gone so far as to do, only shows how little the person making the comparison knows about Jefferson. Gross flattery devalues the language of political journalism.

Ronald Reagan came to office with a handful of big ideas. One was more a mood. He wanted to make Americans feel better about themselves. After a decade and a half of frustration abroad and division at home, people wanted to hear that it was "morning in America". But euphoria is not a policy. Modest Ron Reagan bears some of the blame for the "lone superpower" arrogance of his spiritual heirs in the second Bush administration.

A more specific idea was that détente, the search for accommodation, was not the way to deal with the Soviet Union. Reagan believed that if the US stood firm, the Soviet Union would cave in. He stood firm, and the Soviet Union did collapse. But a sequel is not necessarily a consequence. The wheels were already coming off the Soviet Union when Reagan came to the White House. The elites realised that only radical political change could save the system. But once they allowed a little glasnost and perestroika, they could not stop the slide. Instead of saving Communism they destroyed it.

The claim that Reagan brought down Communism single-handed is exaggerated. And his grip on the periphery of foreign policy, in the Middle East and in Central America, was not as sure as his handling of the central superpower confrontation. Overall, nevertheless, he must be given high marks for his handling of foreign policy. He did keep the pressure on until the iniquitous and incompetent system finally shook itself to pieces.

Reagan's third "big idea", and the one that has perhaps had most consequences, was pithily expressed in his saying that government was part of the problem, not part of the solution. It was certainly an idea whose time had come. Many working-class Americans were resentful of what they saw as the government's favouritism towards minorities. The executive class wanted economic freedom. Everyone wanted lower taxes. Who doesn't?

Reagan's domestic policy, though, was not a success. Average incomes stagnated, and tax cuts overwhelmingly favoured the well-to-do. The Reagan administration did not have either the nerve or the votes in Congress to cut spending enough to compensate for the tax cuts. The result was ballooning deficits.

Reagan's admirers talk of a Reagan revolution. Instead there was a Reagan legacy: the closed minds and hard hearts of the conservatives and neo-conservatives who staff the administration of George W Bush. Reagan's heirs talk of government as "the State", as if its myrmidons wore long black leather coats and packed rubber truncheons. But what Reagan did was to discredit government itself, the only legitimate tool with which democratic societies can tackle their problems.

Reagan's contempt for government, copied by centre-left governments under Clinton and Blair, has not turned out to be part of the solution. It has been a large part of the problem.

The writer's new book, 'More Equal Than Others', is about America since 1975

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas