Today would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. A lot of folks are taking the opportunity to talk about our 40th president, his life, and his legacy. And one of those reminiscences got me thinking.
Last week, I heard Michael Reagan being interviewed by Jim Bohannon. And one thing Michael said that really struck me was about how many people are quoting Reagan, citing Reagan as their role model, and endless variations of “WWRRD?”
That, according to Michael, is very un-Reagan. Ronald Reagan didn’t talk about the legacy of Goldwater or other prior conservatives. Reagan didn’t litmus-test his ideas against some idealized figure from the past. And Reagan didn’t idolize any one source for quotes of wisdom.
That struck me as profoundly true. Ronald Reagan wasn’t The Second Coming of anyone, he was The First Coming of Reagan. And we shouldn’t look for a new Reagan.
Ronald Reagan was the right man in the right place at the right time — much like how George W. Bush was immediately after 9/11. He was uniquely qualified to deal with the economic mess Carter had left, and to face the Soviets at the height of their power.
But even more to the point, Reagan was a man of his times. He was old enough to remember the world before the Soviet Union was a superpower, and had the vision to see a world without the threat of a nuclear apocalypse — by defeating them without an open war. He also saw what was throttling the American economy and spirit, and took that on.
However, these aren’t those times. The world is vastly different today than it was in 1980. The biggest threat — militant Islam — is one that Reagan only saw as a diversion from the real threat of his day, and one that sometimes could be useful or harmful. It was useful in Afghanistan, where the Soviets had invaded, and was bleeding itself white in what has often been described as their Viet Nam. But it was dangerous in Iran and Lebanon, where it directly threatened American interests and lives. And “terrorists” were mainly known as hijackers and occasional bombers, who mainly limited themselves to military targets. Reagan didn’t trouble himself too much with them — he had far, far greater threats to deal with, and he did.
Today, we are seeing people fighting over Reagan’s “legacy.” I just heard a guy on NPR talking about how Reagan wasn’t really that good a conservative, that he was far more moderate and reasonable and realistic than we’ve led ourselves to think. Hell, under Reagan, taxes actually went up and government expanded — he was practically a liberal! We all should love him! And Time Magazine put together a picture of Reagan seeming to endorse Obama.
Meanwhile, Republicans with presidential ambitions are either directly citing their admiration for and embracing of Reagan’s “legacy,” either directly or through proxies.
Personally, I only see one potential candidate that really reminds me of Reagan in any significant way. That’s the candidate who’s talked about as seriously below average in intellect, who utterly polarizes most people into passionate support or hatred, who speaks in a relaxed, folksy, easy-to-understand language, who has a religious faith that their detractors love to mock and challenge, and even served as governor of a very large state. But that’s hardly enough to crown Sarah Palin as The Next Reagan.
What Reagan was — and what we need — is another American original. Reagan used quotes and historical examples, but he also used many of his own words and ideas and anecdotes. He didn’t draw too deeply from any single source, but spread his roots wide — and synthesized them into his own unique identity.
And “the next Reagan” will need to do the same. Yes, they should draw from Reagan, but not him exclusively. Hell, not even him primarily. And “the next Reagan” should — politely, but firmly — reject that title. Presidents who try to tie themselves to a predecessor’s legacy — George H. W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson come to mind — tend to fail rather spectacularly. Those who resist that temptation and carve out their own identity and put their own stamp on history — Kennedy and Truman come to mind — tend to end up listed among the greats.
Will we have “the next Reagan” running next year? I dunno. I see several jockeying for that role, but it’s pretty much a given that those who seek it out are doomed to fail at it.