How President Reagan turned me into an optimist

It didn't seem likely he would depart this world without taking the rest of us with him
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The Independent Online

As so many people have pointed out, the world is much poorer for the loss of Ronald Reagan, the great communicator. Never one to be bogged down by political jargon, he always combined his comforting nature with irresistible folksy charm. For example, who can forget his message to the Nicaraguan peasants: "We're going to burn your villages down." This was delivered as ever with irrepressible mid-west good humour. "And if you carry on wanting to be run by the government you elected, we've got guys who'll rip your organs apart with their bare hands," he said, with that effervescent cheeky presidential grin.

As so many people have pointed out, the world is much poorer for the loss of Ronald Reagan, the great communicator. Never one to be bogged down by political jargon, he always combined his comforting nature with irresistible folksy charm. For example, who can forget his message to the Nicaraguan peasants: "We're going to burn your villages down." This was delivered as ever with irrepressible mid-west good humour. "And if you carry on wanting to be run by the government you elected, we've got guys who'll rip your organs apart with their bare hands," he said, with that effervescent cheeky presidential grin.

Certain White House apparatchiks would occasionally voice concern that illegally to fund, arm, advise, supply and run an army dedicated to overthrowing the elected Nicaraguan government wasn't, strictly speaking, within international law. Sharp as a razor, Reagan would reply by saying, "Do you know, I've completely forgotten who I am." Then everyone would laugh and the massacres could continue without ill-feeling.

For Reagan wasn't a politician's president; he was a people's president. His interest wasn't the tedium of detail but the big picture. Once he was stuck in a dreary meeting in which Pentagon officials were wading through the footnotes on how to carry out Reagan's plans for El Salvador. He'd decided to back a general, known as "Captain Blowtorch", in putting down the movement for democracy, a strategy that would wipe out 20,000 people in 15 months. "Where should we send our first consignment of troops?" asked a junior defence minister. With typical bonhomie, Reagan fell fast asleep. "Wake me up when they've all been shot," he mumbled.

Despite this cheery exterior, Reagan could certainly be tough when necessary. He was uncompromising towards communism, a system that enraged him for denying its citizens the right to vote for governments that could then be overthrown by a US-backed military coup. Reagan's firm stance towards the Soviet regime single-handedly freed billions of people who were suffering under its rule. Because up to then, American presidents had all tried the soft approach, dealing with communist regimes by taking all the leaders away to the coast in a big van for a week in order to develop their sense of community, in the hope that delinquents such as Leonid Brezhnev would start to dismantle the Berlin Wall as they learned to get in touch with their inner selves.

The pre-Reagan liberals, such as Richard Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy, had never considered acting tough, and as soon as Reagan made it clear he would stand for no nonsense, the East German government apologised for all the trouble it had caused and gave Checkpoint Charlie back to McDonald's, which had owned it in the first place.

But Reagan was, as his beloved Nancy often said, also a man of "easy grace". So, despite his loathing of communism, if he felt a particular communist was making an effort, he could coax them gently. Which was why his first administration gave vast amounts of money, food and weapons to Pol Pot. After all, Pot's Khmer Rouge was engaged in a programme of genuine reform, although the nature of this reform was the systematic starvation of a million peasants. However, the Americans had killed 750,000 Cambodians only a few years earlier by napalming the place, so Pol Pot's policy of slaughtering large chunks of Cambodia could actually be seen as positively pro-American.

And the arms spending was critical in restoring a sense of pride to the 50 million Americans in poverty in 1984, who were previously concerned their government might squander the money on welfare or a health service.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was to make America feel good about itself once again. Reagan's folksy wit helped America to get over the neurosis it developed after Vietnam, and learn to enjoy invading all over again. With boundless optimism, he declared it was Morning for America. Having launched the largest ever peacetime military spending programme, introducing the world's population to terms such as ICBM, MX, and SDI, millions of people would wake up every day and go: "Thank Christ we're still here", making us fully appreciate each morning.

So Reagan's greatest legacy should be his greatest quality: optimism. Because between 1980 and 1988, it didn't often seem likely that the time would come when Reagan would depart this world without taking the rest of us with him.

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