The Reagan Legacy.


Apparently, some Republicans are concerned that all the lionizing of Ronald Reagan will strip the conservatism out of his persona, until all that's left is a friendly guy who restored America's faith in itself and liked jelly beans. (Though Rep. Ben Quayle, who apparently didn't fall too far from the tree smarts-wise, avers, "The jelly beans were much more than a sweet treat that he gave out as gifts. They represented the uniqueness and greatness of America — each one different and special in its own way, but collectively they blended in harmony." So profound...)

It seems that they want to have it both ways: They want Reagan to be a figure all Americans revere but also to be a deeply partisan figure whose invocation should convince us that in today's debates, Republicans are right and Democrats are wrong. But you really can't have both.

Over time, all political figures are going to get reduced to a few touchstones of rhetoric and personality. John F. Kennedy is an icon, but his image has virtually nothing to do with policies of any sort. The Kennedy of our memory is a figure of hope and possibility, and not much more. Fifty years from now, when most of the people who were around when he was president are dead, what are we going to remember about Reagan? Chances are it will be that he "restored our sense of optimism," as so many people are now heard to say. That's the kind of thing you say about a guy you name bridges and airports after, and if his more ideological legacy fades away, conservatives have no one to blame but themselves.

On the other hand, Reagan is in some ways the perfect model for today's Republicans. After all, he told lots of folksy stories, without ever caring whether they were true ("If you tell the same story five times, it's true," his spokesman Larry Speakes famously said when asked to explain yet another of his boss' falsehoods). He crafted an image as a tough-talking cowboy, despite never having faced personal danger without someone there to yell "Cut!" He came into office claiming he could boost defense spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget, then wound up increasing the deficit by more than his 39 predecessors combined.

So Reagan's most meaningful legacy may be rhetorical. He taught Republicans that accommodating themselves to government in practice didn't mean they had to stop saying, with what looked like complete sincerity, that government is always and everywhere the problem. In fact, he taught them that you could say pretty much anything you wanted, and it didn't really have to have anything to do with what you were actually doing. If that's not a vital lesson, I don't know what is.