This is the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth, an event greeted with armies of hagiographers and one heart-felt personal book by his progressive son, Ron Reagan. It's also the 30th anniversary of Reagan's ascendancy to the presidency and the end of Jimmy Carter's one failed term in office. Carter is seen as the most successful and admirable former president, but still a personal riddle, as a new Rolling Stone article explores. As if Reagan was not one: Charismatic to the masses, friendly in person (I met him once, as part of a group of other journalists), but utterly distant and opaque beyond that to everyone except, perhaps, Nancy. Some of this sounds like Barack Obama. Maybe there's a certain sociopathic streak that comes with modern presidents. Either way, we live in Reagan's shadow, whether it's for good or bad. But we also live in Carter's.
A few years before he died, Hamilton Jordon, Carter's White House chief of staff, befriended me. He was nothing like the scheming party boy I had been taught to imagine as a young Republican. Instead, I found a man of uncommon depth, intelligence and grace, tempered by a long fight with cancer. It's not giving up any confidences to say Jordan found his boss could be as frustrating as he appeared to us on the outside. My problem with Carter, aside from the Goldwater it took years to cleanse from my system, was his Baptist preacher sanctimony. And, with the Afghanistan invasion by the Soviets and especially the Iranian embassy hostage debacle, he appeared weak and willing to preside over American decline.
But of course the story is more complicated. Ask who started the deregulation movement, appointed Paul Volcker as Fed chairman with a real mandate to break inflation, pushed the MX Missile and modernization of NATO's nuclear forces, as well as presided over building the world's most lethal ballistic missile submarine class, and you'd likely answer, "Reagan." In fact, it was Carter. Ask which president was more pragmatic, most pushed the Soviet Union on human rights, grew to genuinely hate nuclear weapons and proposed banning all ballistic missiles, and whose life-ling hero was Franklin Roosevelt, you'd probably answer, "Carter." It was, of course, Ronald Reagan. The U.S. policy (quietly) invoked to justify both Persian Gulf wars and our huge military presence there is the Carter Doctrine.
Carter was the only Naval Academy graduate to be elected president; he was a protege of "Father of the Nuclear Navy" Hyman Rickover and served six years in the elite submarine service. Yet he came across as weak for substance, not image. He was blindsided by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, causing him to essentially admit he had been naive. He was similarly inept in navigating the Iranian Revolution and especially the takeover of the American embassy and holding hostages. The lethally bungled rescue attempt probably sealed the deal with a majority of Americans, who voted as much against Carter as for Reagan — just as many Americans voted for the untested Carter because of revulsion against Nixon and pardoner Gerald Ford (Mr. Obama, take note). One other thing about Carter: He was probably the last pre-modern-media age president. No one with his looks could be elected today. (Sure, JFK is supposed to hold the title of first modern media president, but LBJ and Nixon were homely, while Warren Harding, of the radio age, was very handsome).
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Reagan was never the "amiable dunce" of his critics imagination; their implacable, visceral dislike of the man is one reason the left of center still can't win the political debate. In his prime, he was closer to the priceless SNL "mastermind" character than to the empty-headed actor mouthing words written for him by his handlers (as someone who came out of the theater, it always galled me to hear, "He's just an actor"). In fact, as Reagan's handwritten notes on legal pads attest, he was a sophisticated thinker whose political and ideological positions had been well thought through. Unlike Carter (much less Obama), Reagan had been governor of a populous, diverse state, two terms marked as much by pragmatism as ideology. He got along far better with Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill than did Carter, and was among the most successful presidents in going over the heads of Congress to generate popular heat. Unlike Carter, he was a shrewd, gifted politician. In the short term, Reagan's policies did revive the economy from the worst malaise since the Depression; Volcker helped, but, unlike LBJ, Nixon and Ford, Reagan quietly supported the cure for inflation. Beyond that, Reagan deserves far more credit than he gets for managing both the demise of the Soviet Union and achieving it peacefully. Without Reagan, a Gorbachev might not have emerged for years, if ever (the red empire's decline might have caused another Soviet leader facing a seemingly weak American president to risk war).
All that said, many of Reagan's policies were terribly misguided and have had disastrous long-term consequences. His reduction in marginal tax rates did not bring in more revenue than would otherwise have come to the Treasury, but locked in place a tax-cut orthodoxy that would do so much damage in the coming decades. His lack of antitrust enforcement allowed the rise of industry consolidation and anti-competitive mergers. Reagan's embrace of deregulation set the stage for the catastrophic deregulation and regulatory capture of the Clinton and Bush years. U.S. manufacturing reached its employment zenith in 1979, and although American industry went through a needed re-engineering in the 1980s, the unchecked rise of a financialized economy, merger mania and bad trade deals began then, too, ultimately undoing much of the good the revival first engendered. The list is a long one. The only former head of an AFL-CIO union to become president gave the green-light to union busting not seen since the 1880s, and with it, the decline of the middle class. Reagan legitimized right-wing extremism that now has taken over the Republican Party, a party that would never nominate Ronald Reagan even for precinct captain. The tragic irony is that Reagan really believed in the conservative, free-enterprise, small-town values he espoused. Yet his policies did so much to undermine them.
Carter's tragic irony is that he was positioned to speak frankly to the American people about a high-cost energy future, over-reach and sustainability — but he lacked the rhetorical and political gifts to do so. Nor did he do enough big, practical things, such as rebuilding the American passenger train network, that might have altered our present hurdle into calamity. Carter's greatest failure was the ability to revive American liberalism and show how it could work for average people, an enterprise perhaps beyond the capabilities of any individual but he could have tried.
One instructive note concerning Carter was his single term. One-term presidencies can be helpful things. The second terms of Reagan, Clinton and certainly George W. Bush were bad for the country.
Looking at the two, however, one sees interesting continuity. The biggest is the capture of the government by the military-industrial complex, which continued apace under both administrations. With it, as Dwight Eisenhower warned, came the costly adventures that are now helping drag down the country that both Carter and Reagan loved.