Too Stooped to Conquer

From The New Criterion

There was no surprise to the Washington Times’s pull-out section devoted to Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday in February, nor to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page tributes to Reagan’s greatness from Robert McFarlane and Peggy Noonan as well as its regular editorialists. But the Washington Post? Inside the front page on the same day as the cross-town Times’s tribute — had they thought it worth their while to run a “spoiler”? — the paper advertised a web special to mark the auspicious anniversary: “Former president Ronald Reagan would turn 100 Saturday if he were alive today,” it read. “We take a look back at the man whose legacy still shapes U.S. politics.” Actually, the birthday was on Sunday, February 6, and he turned 100 even though he isn’t alive today. But these are quibbles with what must be — mustn’t it? — a handsome gesture of apology and contrition on the part of the Post, which was once very far from recognizing any greatness in our 40th President, or any legacy of his worth celebrating.

If you went as directed to you would find, among other things, “audio slideshows and photo galleries, videos of memorable Reagan moments, a Reagan trivia quiz, Q & A sessions with Reagan experts, famous quotes from the former president, a twitter feed displaying tweets from Reagan100 and much more.” Among the “much more” was a feature asking, “What’s named after Reagan where you live?” at which readers were invited to find “a building, street or park named after Ronald Reagan in your city or state” and then “Snap a photo of it and share it with us.” A 1000-word Metro section front by Ed O’Keefe was even devoted to the fact that the Ronald Reagan Building at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the second largest government office building after the Pentagon, was planning no events to mark the anniversary until May. Mr O’Keefe and the Post appeared to regard this omission on the part of the Reagan building’s managers as slightly scandalous, as was the fact that there were “few hints of Reagan inside the building’s three gift shops” apart from “a commemorative edition of Life Magazine with his face on the cover” and some jelly beans.

In the context it almost sounded as if the Post was turning its well-known penchant for moralizing at the expense of our public men and women against those who were being insufficiently reverent towards the memory of one of them who was once on the receiving end of such moralizing more often than most. Yet the one thing you wouldn’t find on the website was any hint that the Post had changed its mind about Ronald Reagan since those days. Nor did I see any acknowledgment that any of the other formerly scornful liberals who came to pay their respects at Reagan’s shrine had changed their minds about him. As someone who spent most of the 1980s living in Britain, I found the most astonishing example to be the statue of Reagan which is to be unveiled on July 4th in Grosvenor Square, site (at least until a scheduled move in 2017 to a $1 billion moated crystal cube south of the river in Wandsworth) of the American Embassy in London, alongside those of Eisenhower and FDR.

Of course I’m pleased to see the Gipper getting the recognition that I have always thought was his due, but I would also have appreciated one or two gracious words of regret or the odd admission of error on the part of those Britons — which was nearly all of them — whom I met during the 1980 election campaign and for eight years thereafter who kept telling me that Reagan was a fool and a buffoon and a grossly inadequate political leader, let alone president — a mere “B” movie actor, as they almost invariably put it. There, the consensus of a whole country, or at least of what at the time were beginning to be called its “chattering classes” — appears to have undergone the same unacknowledged transformation as that of the American media. For those of us who have made something of a profession of criticizing the American media, it all seemed too good to be true.

As of course it was. For the Ronald Reagan now being lionized in such unexpected quarters was subtly different from the one who had once been so harshly and (I believe) unfairly criticized in those same quarters only a few years ago. Marking the occasion of the centennial in The Orange County Register, for example, Dianne Feinstein, the very liberal Democratic senator from Reagan’s home state of California, wrote that, even though “over time, history sweetens our memories” of the former President as of other things, “no matter what policy disagreements you may have had with him, you have to admire his style of politics. He embodied a spirit of bipartisanship.” Bipartisanship? That’s not the way it looked at the time. On the contrary, Reagan was widely regarded as the most partisan and divisive president we had ever had. His views were seen as being at least as “extreme” as Sarah Palin’s are now and his intelligence as being, if anything, even meaner. That she makes no mention of these once well-known facts suggests that Senator Feinstein has suddenly found it politic to praise President Reagan not as the icon of conservatism that everyone once knew him to be — and that the Sarah Palins of the world still ignorantly suppose him to be — but as a crypto-liberal.

If this was the view hinted at by Dianne Feinstein, it was openly proclaimed by the likes of Jacob Heilbrunn of the Los Angeles Times and Eugene Robinson of the Post. “A bogus myth about Reagan has become far more precious to today’s GOP than his actual record,” wrote Mr Heilbrunn, author of the highly critical They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.

Despite venerating Reagan, the party has moved to the right of him, suggesting that the federal government should be kneecapped and that a unilateralist, militaristic foreign policy would fulfill Regan’s legacy. Reagan, however, didn’t demonize his enemies, snub allies or try to destroy the federal government. Reagan, in other words, couldn’t be counted among contemporary Reaganites.

Mr Robinson was, typically, even more hyperbolical: “The Republican Party tries to claim the Reagan mantle but has moved so far to the right that it now inhabits its own parallel universe.” Except that the “parallel universe” was downgraded in the next sentence to a mere planet: “On the planet that today’s GOP leaders call home, Reagan would qualify as one of those big- government, tax-and-spend liberals who are trying so hard to destroy the American way of life.” It wasn’t they or their fellow liberals who had changed in coming around to a juster appreciation of Reagan’s stature among our presidents; it was the “extreme” Republican party of Sarah Palin which had abandoned what they were now representing as the sensible, “pragmatic” tax-raising, war-avoiding, immigrant-loving, abortion-approving legacy of Reagan.

That was also the attitude taken by Eugene Jarecki’s two hour documentary, “Reagan,” which was HBO’s contribution to the anniversary’s festivities and which Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times called “an unblinkered but respectful look at the man as well as a skillful, imaginative retelling of his long and improbable career.” To my eye, however, “Reagan” was about as blinkered by the standard left-wing agitprop about its subject as it could well be, or as we might have expected it to be, coming as it did from the author of the similarly polemical pseudo-documentaries, The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Why We Fight. Yet Mr Jarecki stakes his claim to have revolutionized the popular view of his subject and revealed “the real Reagan” by exposing the “many lies told to us today about who Ronald Reagan was and what he did” on the grounds, according to the Post’s Ann Hornaday that Reagan was not, after all, “an amiable dunce” (in Cyrus Vance’s words) but “a complex man in full” and “a fascinatingly contradictory figure.”

In short, the media caricature of Reagan remains largely intact in Mr Jarecki’s film. The same old picture emerges, from his days as accessory to McCarthyite “witch hunts” and apologist for corporate greed in the 1950s to his angry, “repressive” policies towards student demonstrators in the 1960s to his presidency marked by criminal behavior over Iran-contra, a foreign policy that is said to have brought us closer to nuclear war than we have ever been, and his economic policy, or “Reaganomics,” that is confidently pronounced by Mark Hertsgaard, author of On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, to have been based on a “fundamental falsehood” and to have resulted in “terrible damage” to the economy, including a “massive transfer of wealth toward the rich and away from the poor.” The only thing that has changed, and the foundation of Ms Stanley’s view that the film is “respectful” to the former President, is the fact that he is admitted to have been not a fool after all, and to have inspired a great deal of (no doubt misplaced) confidence and affection on the part of the American people. For whatever that may be worth.

I’m afraid that that is about as far as the media consensus or, since the word has become all but inescapable, “narrative” can ever really change. We saw the same thing last month with the shootings of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson (see “Madness & the media mind” in The New Criterion of February, 2011), which the media narrative leapt to account for as in some way still unspecified the product of the same “extreme” Republican faction, led by Sarah Palin, that was also said to have abandoned the Reagan legacy. Yet when this narrative proved to be based on nothing but conjecture and political opportunism on the left, there was no sign of a retraction or rethinking of the “extreme” meme on the part of those who had so confidently put it forward. Like the Reagan narrative, so skillfully tweaked by Mr Jarecki’s polemic, it slotted too comfortably within the left-liberal model of reality created by the media to be knocked loose from it, either by the facts or by a gracious acknowledgment of the possibility of error.

Only very occasionally do reality’s sharp corners prove too difficult for the makers of the media-model to knock off, as they appeared to do at least for a week or two during the Egyptian revolution that coincided with the Reagan birthday celebrations back in the good old USA. The link between the two was of course the Iranian revolution of 1979, among whose many unhappy consequences was the Iranian hostage crisis, widely regarded as having sunk the Carter presidency and thus as having been responsible for Reagan’s election the following year, which was now also the spectre haunting so many of those who would otherwise have been full-throatedly rooting for the pro-democracy demonstrators against the pro-American Egyptian “dictator” Hosni Mubarak.

In the satirical book 1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, a book known to every British schoolboy back in the nearly-forgotten days when every British schoolboy had to learn a bit of British history, their island narrative consisted of those people and events deemed by the authors, speaking on behalf of the Whig historical consensus, to be either “A Good Thing” or “A Bad Thing.” In the case of the English Civil War, they were left with the formulation that the King and his party were “Wrong but Wromantic” while the parliamentary party of Oliver Cromwell were “Right but Repulsive.” It’s a pity that such a helpful compromise was not available to the observers of the Egyptian demonstrations.

The one thing that all sides could be sure of, apparently, was how les événements of Tahrir Square fit into the domestic political narrative. Some on the right were quick to see them as a vindication of George W. Bush’s democracy agenda and a repudiation of President Obama’s “new beginning” to relations with the Islamic world and its dictators. Meanwhile, others on the left — well, see if you can guess what others on the left did. The Egyptian mob had hardly taken to the street before Chris Matthews confidently announced on his little-watched cable show that the uprising was all the fault of (who else but?) George W. Bush.

Leading off tonight: Unrest in Egypt. Proving the Iraq war wasn`t needed, these protests in Egypt, as well as in Yemen and Tunisia, are all aimed at dictators supported by the U.S. The demonstrations have not yet turned anti-American, but they could. These are the events the Bush administration hoped to encourage by lying about weapons of mass destruction and invading Iraq.

Mr Matthews had no difficulty finding in the demonstrations simultaneous indictments both of the supposed impetus given to them by the Bush pro-democracy agenda (“these are the events the Bush administration hoped to encourage”) and of the “dictators supported by the U.S.” against which they were directed.

Unlike his acolyte, Mr Matthews, President Obama had to function in the world of hard diplomatic logic, and he seemed to have a hard time making up his mind what to do, combining vague platitudes about his wish on behalf of the Egyptian people for “democracy” and “freedom” with practical dithering. First, he said that Egyptian President Mubarak had to go “now.” Then, through his representative Frank Wisner and subsequently through his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, he gave it as his opinion that, on the whole, it would be better if Mr Mubarak were to stay around for a few more weeks or months until some mechanism for an “orderly transition” could be put in place. The Washington Post’s verdict? “All week, events in Egypt had churned so rapidly it was hard to keep up, even for a U.S. secretary of state who travels with a phalanx of BlackBerry-wielding aides.” Dear, dear. Rapidly churning events. Who could have foreseen that?

The head-spinning pace of change prompted an acknowledgment by Clinton about the limits of the United States’ ability to influence to shape of the government that will come after President Hosni Mubarak. “Those of us who are trying to make helpful offers of assistance and suggestions for how to proceed are still, at the end, on the outside looking in,” a weary Clinton told a European security conference Saturday. Clinton’s comment summed up the Obama administration’s quandary as Egypt’s unprecedented protest movement prepared to enter its third week. After days of efforts to nudge Mubarak off the stage, if not necessarily out the door, the White House was compelled to shift its approach last week after both the Egyptian president and his top aides made clear that he intends to stay.

This proved to be the beginning of an explanation why “The administration’s essential Egypt strategy began to shift to focus less on Mubarak’s departure, allowing that Egyptians ‘could get through this door another way,’ in the words of another senior administration official.” But that acknowledgment of the administration’s flip-flop didn’t come until the ante-penultimate paragraph of the 1500 word article.

The largely unspoken problem was that nobody knew if the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which everyone agreed was the largest single faction among the revolutionaries, would seek to install the sort of anti-American, terrorist-sponsoring government that the Iranian mullahs did in 1979 or not, or if they would become even further radicalized and their program more attractive to the increasingly anti-American mob the more we temporized about backing their calls for the removal of President Mubarak. The media consensus, so highly skilled at second-guessing and being wise after the event when it comes to the Iraq war — of which it was once (so quickly we forget) in favor — is paralyzed when the outcome of any possible course of action is opaque.

The tribute to Reagan in The Wall Street Journal by Robert McFarlane, his National Security Adviser from 1983 to 1985, included this interesting reflection on presidential leadership:

Think back to Vietnam. Put simply, we lost a war because our presidents couldn’t convince Americans that there were sound reasons for the war and that they had a strategy that would win it. As someone who commanded a unit in the first landing of U.S. combat forces in Vietnam in 1965, and then 10 years later spent the final hours handling communications between the West Wing and our ambassador in Saigon as we withdrew in defeat, I believe that our presidents failed us. We are a democracy. Presidents have an obligation (leave aside a self-interest) to develop popular support. If they can’t do that, their policies will inevitably fail.

This points to the important and, I think, inevitable gap between the exigencies of government and the media consensus, which always tends to default to paralysis. Everything is too risky, so it’s safer just to do nothing. Oh, there are moments of enthusiasm for particular courses of action, but the longer anything goes on — wars in particular — the more criticisms it gathers like burrs sticking to it in sensitive places and keeping it distracted from any possible forward progress. Eventually, the consensus will settle, — as it has in the cases of Vietnam and now, and in spite of a very different outcome, Iraq — on the safe view that anyone with any brains could have seen from the beginning that the thing would turn into a disaster and that, therefore, those who got us into it must have been negligent, malign or criminally stupid.

This is always what leadership has to pull against. It has to make people whose minds are routinely poisoned against any action believe that action can be taken and that it can succeed. The greatest feat of this kind in modern times was Churchill’s in persuading Britain to fight on in 1940, but he didn’t have the overwhelming media consensus pulling against him at the time. Or rather, perhaps, he was able to get in ahead of it, while it was still forming, and turn it in the direction of acknowledging the existential threat to the nation. Even then, it might not have lasted but for the German attack on Russia in 1941, which brought the Communists (of which there were many in the British chattering classes of the period) onto his side instead of working to sabotage his efforts. That Reagan, in admittedly less dire circumstances but without those advantages, accomplished an even remotely comparable feat is what will make him for some time to come, I fear, unique among America’s post-war presidents.

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