Godfrey Hodgson: The true legacy of Ronald Reagan

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

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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

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