Ronald Reagan was an outsize figure on the world stage in his day, and remains so even now, a decade and a half after he passed from the public eye. That much is clear from the national outpouring of emotion that greeted his death last week. Reagan was a people’s president. He personalized the presidency, captivating Americans with his enormous charm, using the magic of television as no president before him had done to bind individuals viscerally to their government in Washington.
It is a paradoxical legacy for a man whose governing ideology was opposition to government. “Government is the problem, not the solution,” Reagan liked to say of the institution he had been elected to lead. But Reagan was a bundle of paradoxes.
Historians will remember Reagan first and foremost for his role in speeding the downfall of the Soviet empire, an historic event for which millions will be forever grateful. Entering the White House at a time when America had lost confidence in its ability to lead, he restored Americans’ self-assurance, raised the flag again and charted a new course. There were excesses along the way, including a shamefully forgiving policy toward South African apartheid and a series of dirty wars in Central America that bordered on genocide. And yet, while Reagan marched America off in its new direction, often wrong-headedly, he managed to do so without sundering the fabric of the Western alliance. Only in retrospect can we see the importance of that achievement. Unlike his ideological heirs, Reagan had a subtlety and pragmatism that allowed him to step back from the worst of his mistakes.
And for all his missteps, he lived to see the Berlin Wall brought down and the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers reduced dramatically, making the world a safer place. One acolyte famously called that heady time “the end of history.”
Paradoxically, the end of communism led not to the end of history, but to a new and dangerous phase, darkened by the unintended consequences of Reagan’s single-minded policies. In the Persian Gulf, he sold — or allowed his aides to sell — arms to the Islamic regime in Tehran in a misguided attempt to buy off terrorists. At the same time, he propped up Iran’s archenemy, Saddam Hussein, who emerged from the decade as a newly terrifying threat. Further east, in Afghanistan, he supported a 10-year war by Islamic guerrillas that weakened the Soviet Union and gave birth to the new global nightmare known as Al Qaeda.
If the end of communism is Reagan’s unshakeable gift to posterity on the international front, nothing similar can be said on the domestic front. His foreign policy was aimed, at least rhetorically, at increasing freedom and defending human rights. His domestic policy was aimed at reducing the role of government in protecting the weak and helping the unfortunate.
To do this, he advocated reduction in the size of government. He lowered taxes on the rich, then raised them on the poor through a hike in the Social Security payroll tax. He did not reduce government, but merely shifted spending from social programs to the military. In the end, he borrowed. By the time he was done, the federal debt had nearly tripled. Washington ran up more debt under Reagan than under all the presidents before him combined.
These actions had real effects on real people. Reagan reduced federal spending on low-income housing from $33 billion at the start of his presidency to $8 billion at the end, of which more than half was found to be siphoned off in graft by administration officials. During his presidency, an army of homeless people appeared on America’s streets. No one knew why.
The larger effect, however, was a shift in America’s public ethic. Reagan presided over a decisive transformation of our national debate, legitimizing contempt for the weak and the celebration of heartlessness. He fought to decrease the role of government in protecting racial and sexual minorities. He ignored the AIDS epidemic for too long, gutted civil rights enforcement and ravaged environmental protections.
No one could rightly accuse him personally of cruelty, heartlessness or prejudice. But he fostered a national mood that made heartlessness respectable and encouraged bigots to be comfortable with their prejudices.
That national mood is Reagan’s most troubling legacy. He was a kind and well-intentioned man, but he headed a conservative movement that reveled in its cruelty, and he empowered that movement to sweep across the nation after he stepped down.
It is that movement, now entrenched in all three branches of government and dominating much of the national broadcast media, that has dominated discussion of Reagan for the last decade, celebrating him as a leader for the ages, putting his name on airports and aircraft carriers while he was still alive, now leading a national outpouring of grief befitting a fallen monarch or founding father. Reagan was neither.
Americans are united this week in mourning a man of paradox who accomplished much good and left behind a deeply mixed legacy. We mourn him as the holder of our nation’s highest office and a man with a decent heart. Millions of us mourn him with mixed feelings. And no, we will not hide them.