While I still hold neither a history degree, nor a political science degree, my knowledge of American History has greatly improved. I've learned the names of many more presidents, it helps that the streets in town are named after a bunch of them. I've also learned a little bit about some of the things these people stood for, some of their primary objectives, and some of the actions they took while standing forefront in our country. I've also learned to understand the stress, the decisions, and to truly understand why no one who wants to be president will ever do a good job at it.
I actually started this post months ago, after watching several documentaries on the 70s and 80s. I lived through the 80s like I said, but I was still mostly isolated in my perception of the world. Since I started this post I've gained even more knowledge and many people spent the weekend celebrating Reagan's 100th birthday. In light of this, I decided to return to this post and attempt to finish it (even though I've got about a dozen of these "unfinished" posts going right now).
Growing up, there was this overwhelming love for Reagan. Even when things weren't good and the recession was at it's worst, the people around my life had this unwavering confidence in the trickle-down economics and the reduced taxes for the wealthiest of Americans even though taxes increased for them. Still to this day he is heralded by so many around me, even our current democrat president. Obviously, there are many things he did well. He is an amazing presence. He had an amazing stance, profile, and eloquence of speech. Like our current president, even if you don't agree with him, you liked listening to him talk, even if you wished he had a different agenda.
One of the first, and to me - most appalling things I learned about this favored president is that, in his first 100 days of office, he purposefully sought out all of the alternative energy changes made by the previous administrations and obliterated them. Including trashing the solar water heating system that had just been paid for and installed upon the white house. Not only is that a ruined experiment (really fires up my scientific senses), but it is a HUGE waste of money, while the US was undergoing a recession. I know it's sad, but it was this one thing that began to demonstrate the tarnish on this image of the perfect president of our times.
I mean sure his financial policy was complete folly, but he really believed in it, and to my limited knowledge it hadn't been tried, and hey he went for it full force and let the experiment run. I can respect that. I can respect trying to make a change, if you have support and evidence and research or at least you convince everyone that you do. And I support letting it run for as long as feasible, but hey people have to live too, I suppose. I say this because I want it perfectly clear that I'm not going to judge a person based on good ideas that turned out to not be.
The more I learn, the more I see that there is more tarnish than shine in the legacy of President Reagan. He had his ideals, the things he promoted, but they were simply his image. His reality as a leader did not reflect the words that came from his mouth. He is known as the great diplomat, but he was also the driver behind our nuclear arsenal stockpiles. He never had a balanced budget and ballooned the deficit more than any peacetime president.
I could go on, listing inconsistency after inconsistency. Places where the legacy and the reality fail to meet. And if you want a few more bullet points here's a short Washington Post article that hits some of the highlights. Yet, we learn so much from the adoration of Reagan as well. Today, he is more of a folk hero than he was during his own lifetime. His approval ratings have never been higher. Partially, this is because of a push to remember him in a good light. Part of it is good marketing. Part is human dignity as he exited this world a rather sick man.
We also learn a lot about ourselves as a people. Ronald Reagan's political career isn't of a man who worked his way through the system, but of a celebrity who used his position to speak out and in speaking out was shown a new path, which he grasped with both hands. He acted his way into and around the white house, running the country by the suggestion of his aids and the gut feeling of what he felt was best. He is known for trying to inspire Americans to mimic his heroic persona. And we buy it, hook, line, and sinker.
Ronald Reagan is not the worst thing to happen to America, but he's not the poster child of what a president should be either. I feel a sadness in the loss of the idealism of my childhood (what little it had), in the passing of the glory of the illusion. Yet, like all good magic tricks, there is something better and safer about learning what it is the hand is doing that the eye does not see.