The Gip and George W.
June 10, 2004
Dear President Bush:
Please take comfort in the kind words being said about the late, great former President Ronald Wilson Reagan.
President Reagan, like you, felt God’s hand as he navigated through his presidency. He urged peace through strength and criticized communism as ideologically and morally bankrupt, and called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” You, of course, called Iran, Iraq and North Korea an “axis of evil,” and correctly understand that ultimate victory over terrorism lies in changing the conditions in countries that house, protect or are indifferent toward Islamic terrorism.
They called Reagan dumb, lazy and educationally challenged. They derided as “trickle-down” Reagan’s “outrageous” notion that America increases its strength, prosperity and vitality with a limited federal government that allows people to enjoy the maximum benefits of their labor.
But what do they say now? Today, many of Reagan’s critics grudgingly give him credit for the following: hastening the demise of the Soviet Union; ushering in an era of long-term prosperity (even if they don’t understand the formula: limited government equals growth); showing that tax cuts produce increasing government revenues; and attempting to rein in the ever-increasing and intrusive nature of the federal government.
Some simplistically credit Reagan’s popularity to his sunny disposition, charm and optimism. But what about his policies, the decisions he made, the risks he took?
At the time of the October 1987 stock market “crash,” The New York Times criticized then-President Reagan for staying cool, because he had declared, on the night of the “crash,” that the “underlying economy remains sound.” The Times stated, “With the fire alarm wailing on Wall Street and the country anxious for leadership, it gets an astonishing rerun of Herbert Hoover.” As Bob Uecker used to say, “Just a bit outside.”
A Washington Post editorial from October 1984 informed us that Reagan’s so-called “age problem” was actually a mental light-weight problem: “This strange thing called ‘the age issue’ arose in as odd and unsatisfactory a manner as it is said now to have vanished. The phrase was invoked to cover the evident fumbling and factual chaos that marked President Reagan’s presentation on the first debate. But this was not some new-found ‘age issue.’ It was vintage Ronald Reagan. That is the way the man often speaks; the facts have long been muddled or neglected by him in this fashion.”
And barely midway through his first term, a January 1983 New York Times editorial pronounced his administration a catastrophe, “The stench of failure hangs over Ronald Reagan’s White House. The people know it, judging by the opinion polls. Corporate titans know it and whisper disenchantment with a fellow conservative. Washington knows it when an Administration official calls the budgeting process ‘an unmitigated outrage’ and when Mr. Reagan’s closest friend in the Senate pronounces the President ‘as very close to set in concrete.’”
The New York Times revisited the Reagan-as-dummy theme in a January 1986 editorial about Soviet missile strength, “On a … vital matter on which he had had to be briefed to the teeth, then, Mr. Reagan confirmed that he still does not have a firm grip.” Later that year, a New York Times editorial continued the Reagan-ill-informed-reckless theme, “Previous U.S. administrations have prompted (Moscow) either to explain or desist from questionable activities through the diplomatic channel for resolving arms disputes. Mr. Reagan’s solution is radically different: tear up the rule book. In doing so he removes the grounds for complaint – and for correction. How does that leave America better off?”
Even Reagan’s humor and wit apparently failed to impress Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The book lists 35 entries for Franklin Delano Roosevelt; 28 for John F. Kennedy; six for Jimmy Carter and three for Reagan, who served two full terms. Bartlett’s editor, Justin Kaplan, said, “I’m not going to disguise the fact that I despise Ronald Reagan.”
But eventually the facts catch up with the rhetoric. Your father, President George Herbert Walker Bush, lost his re-election bid largely because of media-driven perception of a sluggish economy. We now know that his successor, Bill Clinton, inherited a recovering economy. Similarly, your critics accuse you of producing the worst jobs record “since Herbert Hoover.” Never mind that you inherited an economy in a recession, or that in recent months the economy produced over a million jobs. For many in the media, it’s no longer the economy, stupid.
Reagan’s death and growing reputation provide hope. For someday historians will call you a visionary in leading the war on terror, and in lighting a fuse toward democracy in the Middle East.
Reagan’s critics didn’t get it either. Some never will.