October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated As often happens with our Presidents, the recent outpouring of grief over the death of Ronald Reagan has tended to distort the historical record. This is certainly understandable, especially considering Reagan’s tragic final illness, which by all accounts he faced with typical personal courage for as long as he could.
Yet the primary claim for Reagan’s greatness—that he “won” the Cold War—seems exaggerated on the face of it. The Cold War was won by every President from Truman through Reagan, not to mention the countless brave men and women, in our armed forces and without, and in all the free countries of the world, who did the long, hard job of grinding down the Soviet Union after 1945. An Evil Empire does not fall in a day.
In general, his adherents like to portray Reagan as a “big vision” President, who was an expert at delegating and did not let himself get bogged down in the details of governing. Yet it is not at all clear that his vision was really wide enough, or that he would not have benefited from paying a little more attention to details. His administration was engulfed in scandals, after all, ranging from the Iran-contra operation (in which the Constitution was flouted in the course of selling arms to a fanatical, terrorist-supporting theocracy that had just humiliated the United States) to the savings-and-loan debacle (which remains the costliest financial scandal in American and perhaps world history). The supposedly sterling economic record of the Reagan eighties was in fact bracketed by a deep recession and a stock market crash, while the go-go years in between were fueled by record peacetime deficits that his successors labored for nearly 10 years to make up— and which contradicted nearly everything Reagan claimed to stand for before taking office.
More disturbingly, throughout his public life Reagan was also distinctly unsympathetic toward those who were victims of almost anything besides communist oppression. His reaction to the AIDS epidemic was sluggish and indifferent at best. He opposed even the most basic civil rights legislation that ended Jim Crow in the 1960s. His breaking of the air traffic controllers’ union was a watershed moment in the destruction of workers’ rights in America, and perhaps saddest of all, he remained hostile to nearly all social-welfare programs (despite the fact that his own family was rescued through government intervention during the Great Depression)—even inventing and popularizing the infamous story of a black, Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” who never actually existed.
Underrated Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been frequently compared to Reagan of late as another congenitally optimistic big-vision President. Yet both the hard right and the hard left have been steadily chiseling away at his reputation for years.
Their collected criticisms seem to be that Roosevelt should have left the economy alone after three years of the worst depression in modern economic history, or that he should have seized the opportunity to convert the United States into a model socialist state—arid that, after all, he didn’t end the Depression anyway.
It is true that after making considerable strides toward recovery, the nation plunged back into recession in 1937-38, when Roosevelt—always a fiscal conservative at heart, unlike Reagan— cut back on government spending too quickly. This mistake was quickly corrected, though, and the economy was growing again even before World War II ultimately intervened.
But more important, Roosevelt provided the support that kept tens of millions of Americans from losing their homes, their farms, their hopes, and even their lives. He rebuilt America physically—and also built the pragmatic, liberal social covenant that proved that democratic capitalism was more than a match for the totalitarian philosophies then being touted as the wave of the future. As such, FDR got us through the two greatest crises of the Republic—the Depression and the war—and built much of the framework that would actually win the Cold War. And while he always kept the big picture in mind as President, he succeeded by busying himself with a great many details as well, such as recruiting an amazing array of government talent and molding it into what was probably the most capable and honest administration in our history.