• U.S.

The End of Reaganism

13 minute read
Garry Wills

It ended not with a bang but a whimper — Dan Quayle whimpering about Murphy Brown, Hollywood and family values. It began with Hollywood values installed on the Potomac — Frank Sinatra, that champion of family virtue, staging an Inauguration for his old friends Ronald, Jane Wyman’s ex-husband, and Nancy, the goddaughter of a famous lesbian (the silent-screen star Alla Nazimova). We have all heard that revolutions devour their own, but how could the Reagan Revolution, of all things, end in a war against Hollywood?

Why, for that matter, after Reagan’s Feelgood Era, did the Republicans feel so terrible? It was morning after in America. George Bush was understandably puzzled, almost to the point of paralysis. He thought he had done everything right — won the cold war, won a hot war, made a showy raid on Panama, brought down the yellow ribbons, brought on the victory parades. Unlike the Kennedys with Castro, Carter with Khomeini or Reagan with Gaddafi, Bush had got his man, the first tyrant to bother him — he ran Noriega to ground in Panama’s papal nunciature, tortured him with rock music and hauled him back home for trial. He did not finish off Saddam Hussein, but he kicked him out of Kuwait and rained rockets on his army at will.

If anything, Bush thought he was going to make up for the deficiencies of the Reagan years. He pointedly said in his early days as President that he would insist on ethical government, that he would be kinder and gentler, that he would be a “hands on” President. The contrast with laid-back Ronnie and his scandals was never very subtle. The shallow Hollywood glitz, which was useful for regaining the White House from Jimmy Carter, would be replaced by solid Republican virtues now that patrician George was in the Oval Office. The simpleminded rhetoric about an evil empire would yield to more refined management of foreign policy under the former director of the CIA. Bush, a diplomat at the U.N. and in China, was not like Reagan, who before he turned 50 had been abroad only once, to make a movie in England.

The real surprise, given that background, is that Reagan was more flexible abroad and more attentive at home than Bush. Hollywood, it turns out, had given Reagan more real civility, even magnanimity, than Andover and Yale had bestowed on Bush. Reagan’s rhetoric was simplistic but not mean. His “welfare queen” was a campaign exaggeration, but it did not rise out of the sewers of the mind that gave us a distorted history of Willie Horton. Even his opponents had to admit that Ronald Reagan was basically a nice man — a thing harder for Bush’s defenders to claim after the President thanked Congressman Robert Dornan for casting Bill Clinton as a traitor.

What can explain these striking reversals of all reasonable expectations? The truth is that Bush, even as he tried to flail free of Reagan’s absentminded embrace, remained the prisoner of his predecessor. Reaganism without Reagan is not an easy thing to sustain, and Bush’s improvements just made things worse. This is evident in the three main areas of his failure.

FOREIGN POLICY. Reagan was supposed to be — and was — naive on foreign matters. He thought the evil empire could be stymied with a magic weapon, the “defensive” Star Wars. He also thought that weapon so purely defensive that its technology could be shared with the Soviet Union. Reagan outdid both extremes of his own party. He dismayed the hard-liners he had himself assembled and taken to Reykjavik by calling for total disarmament, but not before he had dismayed the moderates with obstructive measures like the all- or-nothing “zero option” for European missiles. Reagan started slowly in foreign affairs, directing his whole first year to the tax cuts he wrestled through Congress. But he moved quickly when he finally met Soviet leaders and found, as usual, that he was charmed by his ability to charm them. The party that had punished Kissinger for measures of detente found its favorite cold warrior racing right past peaceful coexistence to plunge into peaceful cooperation.

When the Berlin Wall came down on Bush’s watch, he seemed the beneficiary of Reagan’s massive defense buildup. Conservatives said that buildup had brought down the mighty U.S.S.R. — though they had earlier claimed that totalitarian regimes never undergo internal change. The strain of a half-century of conflict could give way for Bush’s new world order.

But it was hard to map where America was going when there had been no real assessment of where the country had been. The fall of the Soviet Union came so rapidly that surprise and relief blotted out analysis. Could anything come to pieces so fast if it had not been essentially hollow? Had we been scaring ourselves with bogeys? The evidence is very strong that the “window of vulnerability” that Reagan armed us against was as false an alarm as the missile gap in Kennedy’s day and the bomber gap in Eisenhower’s. Had we outspent not only our enemy but also ourselves in battle with a phantom, becoming a debtor nation to accomplish a victory without spoils?

Cold war certitudes were too great to make such inquiries easy, and George Bush, as it turned out, was the last to encourage those or any other new reflections on world order. His boasted expertise in world affairs was largely a matter of knowing many foreign leaders. Deng Xiaoping he knew from the days of President Ford, and Mikhail Gorbachev from President Reagan’s — which just meant he was slow to respond to new situations after the Tiananmen Square massacre and the rise of Boris Yeltsin. Bush’s is an inertial view of the world, meant to retain old ties as long as possible, a kind of male-club loyalty to things as they were.

Even his one venture on a grand scale was essentially retrospective in nature. Bush early on identified Saddam Hussein as the new Hitler, and he waged World War II against him, recapturing the exhilaration (and the values) of his heroic bomber-pilot days. The Patriot missile was celebrated as if it were the product of some modern Los Alamos. Bush visited the factory for a rally that resembled his trips to flag factories in the 1988 campaign. The Allies were invoked as they had been against the Axis. When victory came in Kuwait, Bush presumed that V-K day would rank with V-E day and V-J day, that America’s international eminence was restored as at the peak of the nation’s power — in 1945.

But in World War II the country’s economy recovered from the Depression. In the final stages of the cold war, the U.S. became a debtor nation. A noncombatant like Japan seemed more the beneficiary of America’s struggle than was the nominal victor. The hard question no one in the U.S. dared raise was whether, in bringing down the shell of the U.S.S.R., this country had been hollowing itself out economically. Many have wondered why the cold war’s end has brought so little celebration. Was the U.S. victory like Muhammad Ali’s over George Frazier in Manila, where the fighters burnt out their internal . circuits in the general conflagration?

Any attempt to reconsider America’s world role, reform its priorities, recruit its strength was dismissed by Bush as isolationist — which took the country further back than World War II, back to the rhetoric of the 1930s. It was a comparative advance toward modernity for Bush to re-enter the cold war of the 1950s by raising McCarthyite doubts about Clinton’s trip to Moscow. At any rate it is hard to find anything new in Bush’s new world order. Even before communism’s fall, Reagan was far readier to imagine a different world arrangement, to adapt and dream, than Bush has been. The opportunity offered by the rapid changes in Europe continues to slip away.

THE ECONOMY. Though Reagan had to reverse a lifetime’s preaching on balanced budgets to become a supply-sider, at least he had a plan for the economy; and unlike most modern Presidents, he concentrated on passing it. Domestic affairs are less glamorous than foreign policy. Richard Nixon compared them to sewer projects. Jimmy Carter gave the economy a couple of pages in his memoirs. Bush was even less interested than those men in conditions at home. He let others take care of that while he kept up his tag-team phone calls to foreign leaders. He was undoubtedly sincere when he kept saying, all through 1992, that the economy was not so bad. If it had been, how would he have known?

Leaving the economy to others might not have mattered if the others had agreed among themselves. But true believers in Reaganomics and doubters of it were speckled through the economic-management team. Supply-side dogma had not delivered on its promises — that savings would increase, capital formation would occur, plant and infrastructure would be renewed. What would not occur, according to the dogma, is what did happen — the huge and growing deficit. Some argued that this must be faced. Others claimed that the economy, stimulated by Reagan’s tax cuts, defense contracts and febrile financial trading, was basically sound, though government spending should be checked. Where did Bush stand on these matters?

Richard Darman said last October (using the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward as his courier) that the “read my lips” pledge was a campaign maneuver, urged by Roger Ailes to counter the picture of Bush as a wimp. Bush resisted making a dubious pledge, but once it was made, once his manhood was vindicated by it, he could abandon the pledge only at his peril. If he did not break it, one tool was denied him in coping with mounting interest payments on the deficit (which doubled in Bush’s years). If he did break it, his macho moment became an empty charade.

Darman said Bush was wrong to make the pledge; supply-siders said he was wrong when he broke it; Darman said it was idiotic for Bush to apologize for breaking it, thus repeating the move that boxed him in at the outset. Bush had, by then, managed to be on every side of this issue and give all sides good reason to distrust him. Basically Bush was as inert in the economic sphere as in the foreign spheres. He considered nothing anew; he called for more of the same — more tax advantage for those with capital gains, higher deficit levels, more railing at entitlements without daring to cut them. Reagan had skimmed the surface advantages of supply-side enthusiasm and left Bush holding the bill. Any departure from failed policy would be a betrayal of Reagan’s “revolution.” The pledge highlighted his dilemma. It might have been his undoing whether he kept it or broke it — but it was fatal when he did both. This was not the only Ailes trick to backfire, but it was the costliest.

CULTURE. For some Republicans, even in earlier days of a confident Reaganism, the possession of the White House seemed an incomplete vindication of conservatism. Why, if modern Republicans had a lock on the presidency, was the rest of the culture still resistant? It seemed somehow illegitimate for liberals to be so powerful in the nonelective part of society, in the academy, in the arts, in the media. Neoconservatives deplored the existence of a “counterculture” trying to tear down what the people’s representatives were up to. Older conservatives saw a conspiracy of “elites” at war with the government of the U.S., maintaining the liberal “intellectual establishment” after their political establishment had been defeated. The religious right saw “secular humanists” everywhere.

Political instruments were used to wage a cultural war. Grants of the National Endowment for the Arts were policed. The National Endowment for the Humanities subjected scholarship to ideological tests. The Administration’s legal efforts against affirmative action were part of a larger campaign to defeat a “politically correct” emphasis on minority viewpoints in the classroom.

Conservatives were frustrated when electoral returns were not reflected in the society’s broader cultural views. But it is hard to make an intellectual . contribution from an anti-intellectual base. William Bennett claims he is maintaining intellectual standards, but he accompanied President Bush on a pandering appearance before Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. Robertson says Bush’s new world order is Satan’s instrument, and his supporters removed the offending words from the Republican platform. A party whose intellectual agenda is dictated in this way has little standing for discussing the affairs of the mind.

A cheerfully philistine business community used to dismiss as peripheral the concerns of philosophers and artists. But when the neoconservatives brought into the party some academicians who were not economists, the scholars began to wonder why they had to check their intellectual luggage at the door. The answer is that the culture of the Republican Party is hostile to independent scholarship. This shows best in the religious arena, where Fundamentalists think all positions but their own — those, for instance, of a Mario Cuomo or a Jesse Jackson, of a Bill Moyers or a Marian Wright Edelman — are not truly religious but masked forms of irreligion. It is hard, even for many sincerely devoted to religion, to have a useful discussion with Fundamentalists who consider them satanic.

The family-values emphasis at the Republican Convention was not an accidental intrusion (no matter how ineptly handled). Conservatives are no longer content to run a businessmen’s Administration like that of Coolidge or Hoover, letting other matters be debated by the pointy heads. Today, after all, the basic values of society are changing or being debated — attitudes toward monogamy, women’s roles, abortion, gay rights, censorship. These topics are bound to be tested largely in the freewheeling atmosphere of the academy and the arts, and changes there are bound to disturb traditionalists. But when traditionalists respond as they have on abortion, with obstruction and assertion rather than argument, they should expect to lose in the arena of debate, whatever the merits of their cause.

Thatcherism in England was called less a revolution than a hiccup, in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Will the same be said of Reaganism? Certainly Reagan’s reputation, like Thatcher’s, is in eclipse at the moment. But Reagan’s decline may be an extreme reaction, prompted by this year’s mysteriously sour mood. Ending the cold war has left Americans adrift. Anticommunism imposed an ordinating principle on the government’s many scattered activities. Without that principle, the country seems disoriented. The nation’s problems are evident, but Reagan’s denigration of government (for all uses but opposing communists) reduced any hope of dealing with the situation. If government, as Reagan liked to say, is the problem, not the solution, you do not solve problems by applying a bigger problem to them.

The uneasinesses of the present moment are not finally imprisoning. America is in trouble, not in decline. Bush was unable to face up to the trouble — it would enrage the Reaganites even to recognize it. But once Americans face the problems, they have great resources for dealing with them. Things got as bad as they are only because Americans were not allowed to admit that they were bad at all. If the new Administration does not face up to that reality, only then does real trouble begin.

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