So Ronald Reagan is dead. One is tempted to respond — as Dorothy Parker famously did when informed of the death of Calvin Coolidge, “How can they tell?” — but that would be tasteless, given that he had Alzheimer’s, a fate I would not wish upon anybody.
Still… The wave of sentimental tosh unleashed by news of his death is a bit hard to take. Gore Vidal used to call Reagan “the Acting President of the United States”, which always seemed to me the best description of a guy who made even the indolent Dubya look like a keen intern. You think I jest? Well, here’s an excerpt from Lou Cannon’s affectionate biography:
“On the afternoon before the 1983 economic summit of the world’s industrialized democracies in Colonial Williamsburg, White House Chief of Staff James Baker stopped off at Providence Hall, where the Reagans were staying, bringing with him a thick briefing book on the upcoming meetings. Baker, then on his way to a tennis game, had carefully checked through the book to see that it contained everything Reagan needed to know without going into too much detail. He was concerned about Reagan’s performance at the summit, which had attracted hundreds of journalists from around the world and been advertised in advance by the White House as an administration triumph. But when Baker returned to Providence Hall the next morning, he found the briefing book unopened on the table where he had deposited it. He knew immediately that Reagan hadn’t even glanced at it, and he couldn’t believe it. In an hour Reagan would be presiding over the first meeting of the economic summit, the only one held int he United States during his presidency. Uncharacteristically, Baker asked Reagan why he hadn’t cracked the briefing book. ‘Well, Jim, The Sound of Music was on last night,’ Reagan said calmly”.
And Gannon’s is an affectionate biography.
Two things are especially galling about the obituarists’ charitable amnesia. The first is the way nobody mentions the Savings and Loan scandal, the biggest corporate swindle in US history (at least up to Enron), which was directly attributable to Reagan’s tolerance of private capital, and the way his regime funded (sometimes illegally, as in the Iran/Contra business) some of the nastiest guerrilla movements ever seen. The second is the almost universal acceptance of the proposition that Reagan caused the collapse of the Soviet Union by massively increasing US military spending, thereby bankrupting the ‘Evil Empire’. I’ve never seen any convincing empirical evidence for this: the Soviet Union was falling apart because it couldn’t provide any kinds of goods — not just military hardware — and was incapable of modernising because authoritarian regimes cannot embrace information technology. And of course Reagan’s allegedly masterful strategy had the useful side-benefit of boosting the fortunes of the US aerospace and weapons manufacturers who contributed so generously to his campaigns.