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Mistifying Adulation

September 13, 2015

“There are advantages to being elected President. The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified Top Secret.”

– Ronald Reagan

The way Republicans talk about Ronald Reagan, they seem to have lost access to his entire record.

This week, the presidential candidates will go on stage at the Ronald Reagan Library for their second debate. The participants will show plenty of adoration and deference to the 40th President of the United States. They can’t say enough good things about him. When they’ve finished displaying their unremitting devotion, we’ll all imagine how grand it would be to make room for his image on Mt. Rushmore. We’ll look up there and tell the Father of our Country and the others that it’s time to move aside and make room up on that block of granite for the One and Only.

If the moderators are planning to only go through the motions and the candidates are allowed to give us the soundbites and drivel that normally marks these big media events, we’ll miss a great opportunity to think about how we could apply the lessons of the past to today’s issues. Don’t get your hopes up, this is prime time TV after all.

Reagan left the White House almost thirty years ago, but we’re still living with consequences of some of his policies and decisions.

Chaos in the Middle East and Asia provides a good case study for the candidates to tell us how they would like to approach serious and complex foreign policy matters. It would be good to know what they have learned from recent history and by that, I mean the period before Barack Obama was elected. Perhaps they could go as far back as 2001, when the last Republican president ignored the warnings in memos from his national security team about Osama bin Laden’s determination and intention to strike America.

Let’s hear them talk very much about Reagan’s contribution to a world order that made the September 11 attacks possible. It’s well-known that Reagan recruited and funded jihadis to join the battles in Afghanistan. Those terrorists built an infrastructure in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Reagan’s support that was instrumental in making the brutal violence of the past three decades possible. Just as with Jimmy Carter before him, there were reasons Reagan believed it was the right thing to do at the time. Let’s hear the candidates’ reflections on that and how they will use what they learned should they be elected.


President Reagan in the White House with people from Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1983. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

And then there’s Iran. The depraved clergy and military men who run the country are not friends of the U.S. There is a long list of reasons for mistrust and suspicion. We’ll be sure to hear the candidates rant about that and Obama’s failure with the nuclear capabilities agreement. But it would be informative to hear them tell us more detail about what they would do instead. Do they want to never negotiate with the Iranians? Would they have spurned the Iranians’ offer to help the U.S. with our military invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, like George W. Bush did.

The candidates all view themselves as tougher than the next and expert negotiators. They tell us that they are in an entirely different league than Obama. What would they then say about their hero Reagan, who said as a candidate in the fall of 1980 that he would agree to all of the Iranian’s demands for the return of the hostages, except the return of the Shah’s property.

What would they say if they are asked to talk about Reagan’s sales of military weapons to the Iranians in exchange for the release of hostages abducted while he was president? Do they believe that this was the right thing for Reagan to do? How would they assess a similar situation if they were president?

The United States gives terrorists no rewards. We make no concessions, we make no deals.

– R. Reagan quoted in the NYT, July 1985, the month before 500 missiles were sent to Iran in exchange for hostages.

Did they learn any lessons from Reagan’s involvement in the Iran-Iraq War? The conflict lasted from September 1980 – August 1988, about the same period as Reagan was in the White House. The militaries of these two countries killed up to one million people or more in those eight years. The Iranians were largely using U.S. weapons that they secured through various countries. Saddam Hussein’s military started out with Soviet weapons. But when Reagan became concerned about the ramifications of an Iranian victory, he made sure to send support to Iraq also. Would they have dispatched a high-profile delegation to Baghdad to meet with Hussein and set the stage for U.S. support like Reagan did? Would the candidates care to help us understand the wisdom of their standard-bearer on these foreign policy moves?

President Reagan (The photo is from PBS.)

President Reagan (The photo is from PBS.)

Immigration is another issue of the day. Current events in Europe heighten concerns here about porous borders and poor law enforcement. Emotions run strong and after decades of trying, nobody seems satisfied with the results. Each of the candidates want to sound bigger and badder than the others when it comes to the border along Mexico. One talks about a fence and the other dismisses that as inadequate and claims that only a wall will do. A big one. By the time we get to the general election, they may resurrect the idea of a moat populated with alligators. This bluster doesn’t really help matters and the issue deserves serious thought and policy.

Reagan signed a bill that gave amnesty to about three million people who entered the country illegally. In an October 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, he condemned employers who exploited these people with “starvation wages and with none of the benefits that we think are normal and natural for workers in our country.” He took the problem seriously, but didn’t seem to spew fear and hate.

I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.

– Ronald Reagan

We will likely hear a moderator’s question about the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the clause that provides citizenship to all people born in the country. There’s talk about making changes to prevent people from coming into the country to have babies, thus giving their children citizenship and forcing the government to break up families if it wants to deport the parents. Reagan was against making any changes. With the short leash imposed on them by their fidelity to the party’s funders and base, most of the candidates can’t really afford to mimic Reagan on that issue.

Reagan’s name will not be on the ballots during the primaries, but you may not know it from this week’s debate. This is just as well for the party’s base. He would be out of line with their view of things. The truth is, he wouldn’t stand a chance in this current political climate, no matter how many times they invoke his name.

  1. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.


  2. Thanks for your in-depth analysis—yes, policy discussions will be trivial.


    • Well, the sad thing about it is that all of this is available to those invoking his name. Scholars, journalists and others did the work long ago. Anything here is just the tip of the iceberg. Anyway, the man looks like a giant compared to the current crew.


  3. Politicians specialize in selective memories. I didn’t watch the first debate, and the upcoming event isn’t on my planning radar … and I follow politics. (See current post) … Too much drivel … too much not answering the questions … I’d cut off their mic once they got off topic.


    • When you cut off the mic, you might get an angry outcry from the actors. Do you remember when Reagan exclaimed, “I paid for this microphone” in the 1980 debate?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. kdk permalink

    The current bunch can’t really hitch their wagons to W or HW … even Jeb distances himself. Reagan is more myth than memory for anyone under the age of 50 … or even 55. That has its advantages. I was fresh out of college and living in DC in ’80-81. The sudden changes that blew through the city, right down to the LA Times news boxes that appeared on street corners the day before the inauguration, caught me by surprise.

    Republican debate, Ram on Report Card: Smile? Self-awareness? Ability to follow rules? Respect for the game? Self-control? The report card was made for these debates!!


    • kdk – it must have been an exciting(?) time to be in Washington D.C. The Democrats were bound and determined to implode and with all of the troubles in the late 1970s, I guess the country thought that they had found their man. Even now, it looks like nothing other than a desparate move. A lot of psychology behind those elections. (Wait. 1980 or 2016?)

      I like the idea of pulling out the report card. Let’s see if I have the fortitude to sit through the entire spectacle.


  5. Very good post. Reagan is now a mythic creature. Didn’t like him much then and find the adulation unnerving.


  6. As I’ve pointed out many times to all that would listen, “This is NOT your father’s Republican Party.”

    Clearly, it’s not even Mr. Reagan’s. (But I have ordered more popcorn for Wednesday night…)


    • It’s not even Reagan’s Republican party. I don’t think he would have much of a chance with the new look they all mimic.


  7. I’m afraid despite the adulation with which President Reagan is regarded in some quarters, I thought he was awful at the time, I continued thinking he was awful throughout all the years afterwards, and I still think he was awful now. I’m not anticipating changing my mind at any point in the future.


  8. I read your post with great fervor. Much more fervor than I gave the political debate this week. Your post is thoughtful, intelligent, and wise. The debate was a 3rd grade brawl. I’m so disgusted with our American politics of the day. Thank YOU for the time you take to write your great posts.


  9. I loved that quote…


  10. Excellent writing and analysis, Bruce. I couldn’t even stand to watch the full debate.


  11. What did you think of that debate? I can’t believe Trump is still in it…None of them stand up to the poise of Reagan.


    • Susie – the debate was another “big event” that gave us nothing but news cycles. Reagan, always the arm-waiving actor and commander of presence, is a statesman compared to the current cast. His debate performances with Mondale and Carter, generally filled with platitudes, seem very serious and substantive by comparison. Trump would have attacked Reagan with the same silly and sophomoric lines as he delivers to the current candidates.


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