Reagan His Place In History

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On the third item of his agenda, “the pieties,” more commonly known as the social issues, Reagan was completely defeated. After signing an expansive abortion-rights bill as governor of California, Reagan came to oppose the practice. When he was elected President, abortion opponents spoke hopefully of a constitutional amendment returning jurisdiction on abortion to the states or banning abortion outright or of a congressional act (per Article III, Section 2) removing the issue from the sway of the courts. Nothing happened. When Reagan addressed audiences of gun owners as a fellow NRA member, they helped him in Republican primaries. Gun-control supporters made little progress during his administration, but recently they have made lots, aided in no small part by the crippled presence of former press secretary James Brady, shot by one of John Hinckley’s bullets. Sex continues to rock and roll through popular entertainment and, not so very long ago, even the Oval Office. Come to think of it, Reagan was the first divorced man to be elected President.

In 1979 the Washington political operative Paul Weyrich helped the Reverend Jerry Falwell found the Moral Majority, the organization’s name confidently assuming that there was such a thing, as Weyrich and Falwell defined it. In 1999 Weyrich gloomily announced that religious and social conservatives should retreat to their families and communities since the political and cultural situation was hopeless.

More objective observers like the political scientist Mark Lilla and the journalist David Frum (author of How We Got Here: The 70’s—The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—for Better or Worse) have amplified on Weyrich’s assessment, arguing that conservative politics and social liberalism are necessarily linked in the postmodern era. Necessity is what we make of it, but they are certainly linked in contemporary practice, and nothing Reagan professed to believe altered that.

Perhaps the pieties fell victim to simplicity. It may be that a hedgehog’s agenda maxes out at two big ideas. Abortion opponents were told during the early Reagan years to wait patiently while Communism and high tax rates were attended to; their turn would come. It never did.

Great generals and politicians often preside over social transformations they deplore. Washington’s Farewell Address deplores the party spirit, yet partisan politics became an unshakable aspect of American life in his administration. Thomas Jefferson was the harbinger of the new era, yet as Henry Adams argued in four stout volumes, that era was not the republican, country party ideal of Jefferson’s youth. If posterity accords Reagan some measure of their success—a world war and a twenty-year boom—it will also accord him their failure.

Reagan’s Presidency came at the end of the twentieth century—the actual one, not the calendrical one. The twentieth century, as many historians have noted, was a short century, running from 1914 to 1991. It was also an evil century, defined by tyranny and bloodshed. The United States came through it less badly scarred than any other major power and than many small ones. Ronald Reagan, who was born in 1911, before the Evil Century began, lived to see and understand its end—which he, as much as anyone else, assured would be relatively successful. Mount Rushmore is full, and that kind of pantheon should probably be reserved for those who speak to America’s spirit (then what’s TR doing there?). But when historians and children have to think of Ronald Reagan at the end of the twenty-first century, they won’t have to scratch around for some Commodore Perry.