Reagan: A Political Enigma
  by Gene Lyons

    Like most successful politicians, Ronald Reagan was something of an
enigma. True, he was never so universally beloved a figure as conservative
eulogists would have us believe. During Reagan's second term, in fact, his
approval ratings were consistently lower than Bill Clinton's even after the
Lewinsky fiasco. The Iran-Contra scandal ("mistakes were made") took
care of that. But he never generated much personal vitriol either.

   Even to rivals, Reagan was hard to dislike. Democratic majority leader
Tip O'Neill found his ignorance of public policy flabbergasting, but
privately they got along fine. He opened his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia,
Miss., site of notorious racist murders during the Civil Rights era, with a
speech calculated to make him the White Man's candidate. Yet he harbored
no personal bigotry. As president, he ignored the AIDS epidemic, yet like
most actors, had gay friends.

   Reagan played the role of president like the dad in a Fifties sitcom: an
affable, optimistic fellow with a twinkle in his eye, and old-fashioned
Midwestern rectitude. He seemed a throwback to a simpler America that
really never existed. When Reagan put on cowboy garb, he rode horses,
not golf carts. He dyed his hair, yet was considered manly.

    Reagan spent World War II making B movies and chasing starlets in
Hollywood, something for which many contemporaries resented even John Wayne.
Yet when he ran for president in 1980, Vietnam was behind us, and so was the
stigma of avoiding military service--at least for Republicans. A little
misty-eyed flag-waving went a long way.

   A serene fantasist, Reagan often confused movies with reality. He told
scripted tales about pilots declaiming patriotically as shot-up bombers
careened toward the sea. He once falsely claimed to have been among American
soldiers who liberated German death camps in 1945, a life-changing horror to
them, a self-aggrandizing fable to "The Great Communicator."

   Yet for all his charm, Reagan's biographers found him opaque and
passionless. His children thought him distant and disengaged. He once
famously introduced himself to his own son, whom he didn't recognize,
at the lad's high school graduation. Yet he was uxorious to a fault, a great
lover of his second wife Nancy--she of the $5000 gowns and White House
astrologer, a grasping woman, ennobled by love.

   Insofar as Reagan was religious, his was a rich man's God. If he flirted
with creationism and "End Times" humbug, it was partly the melodrama that
pleased him, partly political opportunism, and partly indifference. Reagan
attended religious services sporadically; handsome, healthy, and lucky, he
appeared to approve of God insofar as God approved of him.

   By 1984, the Alzhiemer's disease that killed him was, in retrospect,
already apparent. Although he won a landslide victory, Reagan was barely
coherent in debates with Democrat Walter Mondale. In his book "Firewall,"
Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh wrote that while the
president wasn't blameless in the illegal, madcap scheme to sell missiles to
Iranian hostage-takers and pass the profits to the Nicaraguan junta, he was
convinced that Reagan had forgotten everything he'd ever known about it.

   So how did he retain popularity? Three reasons: A TV professional, his
onscreen persona hypnotized millions. My parents became lukewarm Reagan
Democrats. A union member, my mother could never believe that a regular
fellow like Reagan would do damage to her interests. Second, the same
tycoon-funded, conservative commentariat that now seeks to enshrine this
amiable second-rater on Mt. Rushmore was just then emerging into prominence.

   Mostly, however, Reagan stayed popular because he never enacted many of
his Big Ideas, either in domestic or foreign policy. There was no "Reagan
Revolution." He took office vowing to slash the bureaucracy. But federal
spending actually grew by almost 25 percent during his two terms; the
federal civilian work force increased from 2.8 to 3 million.(It shrunk to
2.68 million under Clinton.)

   Basically, Reagan created a Keynesian economic boom through debt-financed
government make-work schemes--mainly superfluous nuclear weapons, redundant
ICBMs, and make-believe missile shields. The national debt tripled on his watch,
even though the Democratic Congress never once spent quite as much as the
White House requested.

   Vowing to slash entitlements--Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security--Reagan
never seriously tried. Indeed his 1983 Social Security commission saved the
program for the forseeable future. Only now is President Bush using workers'
payroll taxes to fund millionaires' income tax cuts.

   Likewise in foreign policy, Reagan was mostly talk. He briefly took sides
in a Lebanese civil war in 1982, but hastily withdrew after terrorists killed
241 Marines. He then invaded Grenada, a Carribean island not much bigger
than Disneyland. What credit he deserves for the Berlin Wall coming down in
1989, isnít so much for Reagan's saber-rattling as his 1987 nuclear weapons
treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev, strengthening the reformist leader's hand by
easing Stalinist paranoia about U.S intentions--a masterstroke for which
conservative ideologues give him no credit.

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