The Corner

Stray Reagan Thoughts

In no particular order:

1) I can’t totally identify with the sentiments in the email I just quoted: I was for Dukakis in 1988, strangely enough.

2) I am rapidly losing patience for people who go on tv to explain, essentially, that what really made Reagan great was that he had put said television guests in high office.

3) There’s also some political body-snatching going on. As Jonah has remarked at various times in the past, foreign-policy hawks tend to think that what was distinctive about Reagan was his anti-communism, supply-siders that it was his tax-cutting, etc. This is neither surprising nor especially damning. But some people, eager for a Reagan in their own image, make it sound as though he were a social liberal–as though he had never written Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation. To compare Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger is fatuous.

4) What does one do when a fiercely detested political opponent dies? Conservatives in the last two days have criticized some of Reagan’s eulogists for their false praise, and criticized those who still attack him for their bad taste. We have the same problem when liberals die; it’s something worth thinking about.

5) I don’t wish to suggest that Alzheimer’s disease is something we should want to keep around. But Reagan’s death makes me think that Leon Kass may be on to something when he says that the decline of old age helps reconcile us to death.

6) Will Saletan’s criticism of Reagan is that the president misidentified freedom with the absence of government. It is true that some of the things Reagan said lent themselves to that interpretation. But Reagan obviously did not believe anything so simple. He explicitly rejected libertarianism, let alone anarchism. Saletan writes that Reagan helped him to see that he is not a conservative because he does not think freedom is the absence of government. But President Bush doesn’t believe that either; and whether or not Bush is a conservative, his rejection of that idea doesn’t settle the issue. It is also worth keeping in mind that Reagan’s political career and, indeed, most of his life took place against a backdrop threat of collectivism and (as Hoover put it) regimentation. A sensible conservative in this environment would have emphasized the individualistic elements of conservatism even if those elements were not the sum and substance of his creed, to be emphasized in the same way for all time.

7) Conservatives have rightly noted that Reagan’s skills as a communicator cannot be divorced from the content of what he was communicating. If he had been a great communicator with Richard Nixon’s ideas, he might not have been elected in 1980–and certainly wouldn’t have been the president he was. The same thing is true of Reagan’s much-discussed “optimism,” which had a fairly specific political content that should not be airbrushed away.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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