Posted 14 February 2005 - 07:23 PM
One political commentator recently commented that “whereas Richard Nixon was blamed for everything, Ronald Reagan was blamed for nothing”. Even after he was caught lying over the Iran Contra affair. He was actually allowed to get away with the following comment: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”
What is charm? Scott Fitzgerald discusses it in some length in the Great Gatsby. According to Fitzgerald, Gatsby has charm because he helps other people feel good about themselves. As Erich Fromm explained in the Art of Loving, people love you because you help them love themselves. This is what Reagan did.
Like in his western movies, Reagan arrived on the scene at the right time to rescue the American public from the traumas and tragedies of the 1960s and 1970s. After the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, Watergate, etc. someone was needed to restore America’s confidence in itself. According to Newsweek Reagan was “America as it imagined itself to be.” Or as Fitzgerald says of Gatsby, he appeared to see you as you wanted to see yourself.
Others have used their charm to good effect (Franklin D. Roosevelt for example). However, I would argue that Reagan used his charm to sell the policies demanded by his rich backers (the Californian arms industry). Lyndon B. Johnson did the same for his backers (the oil and arms industry in Texas) but lacked the charm to carry it off.
Let us look dispassionately at his record:
(1) Reagan was a liberal member of the Democratic Party in his early years. This was partly because his father, who held left-wing views, had been unemployed until Roosevelt’s New Deal. Soon after becoming an actor he became active in the Screen Actors Guild. However, he took advantage of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry during the late 1940s to reposition himself as a staunch Cold War warrior. As president of the Screen Actors Guild he used privileged information against liberal members of the union. He also at this point became a paid informant of the FBI throughout the period that became known as McCarthyism. As a result of the activities of people like Reagan over 300 were blacklisted from the entertainment industry.
(2) Reagan supported the Republican Party after the war but it was not until 1964 that he became a national political figure. This was as a result of a televised speech in support of Barry Goldwater. It did not help Goldwater win the election (seen by most people in America as a dangerous, right-wing extremist). However, it did convince members of the Californian arms industry that here was a man with the charm to sell right-wing extremism. He was approached about becoming the Republican Party candidate as Governor of California. With the help of a smear campaign against Pat Brown and promises of cutting taxes he won an easy victory.
As governor Reagan quickly established himself as one of the country's leading conservative political figures. This included dramatic budget cuts and a hiring freeze for state agencies. He also put up student fees and when they complained he sent state troopers to deal with their protest meetings.
Re-elected with 52 per cent of the vote in 1970, Reagan introduced a series of welfare reforms during his second term in office. This included tightening eligibility requirements for welfare aid and requiring the able to seek work rather than receiving benefits. However, the tax cuts never came, in fact, he presided over the largest tax increase any state had ever demanded in American history.
(3) During his campaign for president he promised a "patriotic crusade" to reduce the size and scope of government, to rebuild American military power and self-respect and to restore traditional values". This campaign was based on the ideas of Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin. His polls showed that events such as Vietnam and Watergate had “shattered traditional confidence in America”. Wirthlin argued that Reagan campaign needed to reflect this problem and to offer ways it could be overcome.
Although there was a federal deficit of over $100 billion, Reagan managed to persuade Congress in 1981 to pass a plan for a three-year reduction in income tax rates (a total of 25%). This was followed by cuts in domestic spending. During the 1980s Reagan's policy of reducing income taxes and federal domestic budgets became known as Reaganomics. These tax changes and the dramatic cuts in the welfare system widened the gap between rich and poor. It also caused a deep recession.
(4) Reagan was elected to power with a promise to reduce public spending and to bring an end to “big government”. He did neither. He increased public spending so much that by the time he left office the United states had a national debt of $3 trillion. Nor did he reduce “big government” he just made sure it worked for the benefit for the Military-Industrial Complex.
(5) Although Reagan made a lot of speeches against the spread of communism in Central America his record of achievement was extremely poor. Castro remained in power in Cuba. He proved incapable of curbing Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista regime. His only tangible success was in invading the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada.
(6) His policies in the Middle East and against terrorism was a disaster. He failed to prevent Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. American forces also became involved until he was forced to retreat after a suicide bomb killed 241 marines. He also funded Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He also provided money for the Islamic fundamentalist government in Iran in order to gain the release of American hostages in the Lebanon. The profits of the deal were then used to supply weapons to the ant-Marxist Contra guerrillas fighting in Nicaragua. This was in defiance of declared government policy and of congressional directives. Reagan deserved to be impeached and only got away with it because the American public were not willing to sack another president after the trauma of getting rid of Richard Nixon.