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The real Ronald Reagan has all but faded away

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Regular, longtime readers of this blog may have noticed my affection for Ronald Reagan.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m a lifelong liberal Democrat, and I never voted for Reagan. But frequently over much of the past three decades, I’ve felt the need to defend the legacy of our 40th president against the right-wing myths that have distorted it.

Sure, Reagan was a conservative, but he wasn’t exactly the cartoonish wingnut portrayed by latter-day loonies in their mischacterizations of the man. I’ve devoted countless columns  to correcting the record regarding the real Ronald Reagan.

I won’t repeat all that stuff here, but it’s hard for me to not notice that the majority of Americans living today don’t remember Reagan’s presidency. And as time continues to pass, the Reagan legacy will become less and less prominent. Eventually, the Gipper’s place in our history will end up a faded mix of fact and fiction.

I’ll use this occasion, however, to  share with you a few excepts I published eight years ago from an essay by longtime political consultant Bob Shrum.

 The true believers claim they’re Reagan conservatives, but their politics are a betrayal of the leader they ritually canonize — a betrayal not just in strategy, but in spirit. Ronald Reagan didn’t just tolerate moderates in his party; he valued them. Reagan knew that to be a governing party, rather than an ideological faction, the GOP needed to run and win outside conservative strongholds. So Reagan’s GOP gave all-out support to pro-choice candidates like Pete Wilson in California…

Even while bending history in a different direction, Reagan more frequently quoted FDR and JFK than any conservative predecessor. In announcing his presidential run in 1980, facing an America of gas lines, rising inflation and rising doubt, with U.S. diplomats held hostage in Iran, Reagan rebuked Jimmy Carter’s complaint that he couldn’t govern effectively due to a crisis of national spirit. With a sense of comfort and command, Reagan told the voters that it was time to renew “our capacity for dreaming up fantastic deeds and bringing them off to the surprise of an unbelieving world. . . . We still have that power.” He even retooled one of Roosevelt’s signature phrases: “You and I together can keep that rendezvous with destiny.” It’s stunning to rewatch that speech; Reagan seems less like today’s Republicans than like Barack Obama declaring: “Yes, we can.”…

A GOP mired in anger and vituperation doesn’t begin to comprehend Reagan’s gift for respecting political opponents — or even diminishing them. Instead of dispensing with the opposition with Reagan-like humor, Republicans treat their opponents as mortal enemies, elevating them with paranoid fantasies about their immense power. To one of Jimmy Carter’s attacks during their debate, Reagan famously replied with a chuckle: “There you go again.” It’s impossible to imagine him sneering: “How dare you go Marxist.”

Ronald Reagan was a proud conservative, but not an unthinking, unyielding, or uncivil one. He had an appeal that reached across party lines, not just to a withered and warped political base. The least Republicans could do, having named an airport for him, is to remember how he navigated the political winds — and found the route to a new political era.

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2 Comments

  1. c u n d gulag

    Well said!

    I’m no fan of Ronald Wilson Reagan, and never was, but today’s conservative policians aren’t a boil on Ol’ Dutch’s tush!
    The man had a sense of humor, and even decency.

    As many have said before, there’d be no place for Ronnie in today’s insane clown posse party, the GOP!

  2. Steverino

    A secret GOP healthcareless bill providing outstanding benefits for wealthy donors. That pretty much says it all for today’s conservatives.

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