A mixed record for the Gipper

Paul Martin says we will remember D-Day long after the participants have passed on. Perhaps. But let's practise on an easy one: Let's try to remember, four full days after his death, what Ronald Reagan did and didn't do. He drastically reduced the Soviet government, but not the American one. Mr. Reagan inspired strong passions during his presidency, not all positive. But when he died his hapless 1984 electoral foe, Walter Mondale, said "Although we were political adversaries, I always liked the guy. I think he had this ability to create a sense of optimism in our country, and I think that was a very valuable contribution." He was saluted as a "statesman" by Mikhail Gorbachev and Jacques Chirac. And Democratic presidential contender John Kerry said, "Now, his own journey has ended - a long and storied trip that spanned most of the American century - and shaped one of the greatest victories of freedom. Today, in the face of new challenges, his example reminds us that we must move forward with optimism and resolve. He was our oldest president, but he made America young again." It sure beats Paul Martin's "There is just no doubt that the United States would be a very different country if it hadn't been for Ronald Reagan. It may well be that the Cold War would have been very different if it hadn't been for Ronald Reagan." (As vague as Inspector Dreyfuss's verdict on Jacques Clouseau, "he's an extraordinary man," but without the deliberate double entendre.)

Mr. Reagan's wit could lampoon others. He once said a protester looked like Tarzan, walked like Jane and smelled like Cheetah, and carried a sign saying "Make love not war," but didn't look capable of either. But it was also self-deprecating. Signing a photo of himself with Bonzo the chimpanzee, he explained, "I'm the one with the watch." And, attacked in 1984 as a senile old fool who fell asleep in cabinet meetings, he told some exhausted campaign workers he wished he could have scheduled a cabinet meeting "so we could all get some sleep." Compare that to today's grim political correctness.

His greatest and most improbable triumph was winning the Cold War. Not alone, to be sure. He was aided by a remarkable cast of characters from Igor Gouzenko to Margaret Thatcher to Pope John Paul II, many doing harder work from a less promising position. But to those who say he was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time, well, luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. Besides, they might have shared, before the event, their insight that Soviet Communism was a rusting hulk waiting for a superannuated B-movie actor to give it a final shove, not a mighty, prosperous force for world peace. Instead, as the Citizen noted, "As early as June 1982, sounding a bit delusional, he had declared that 'the march of freedom and democracy' would 'leave Marxist-Leninism on the ash heap of history.' Five years later ... in West Berlin, he made a demand that seemed equally untouched by reality. 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'... Pundits were appalled and yet, within months of his leaving office, the great unravelling began. The 'Evil Empire,' as Mr. Reagan famously called it, fell with astonishing speed." Talk about winning one for the Gipper.

The Citizen's lengthy appreciation also said "He said he would turn the American economy around - and he did. He said he would reduce the size of the federal government - and he did." Not true. His policies, and personality, helped launch a long, dynamic high-tech boom including the PC revolution. But as The Wall St. Journal's online OpinionJournal noted, "he failed to reduce the size and scope of the federal government." Contrary to the predictions and, shamefully, retrospective analyses of most pundits, his tax cuts produced not an empty treasury but five per cent real growth in tax revenue from 1983 to 1989. He ran deficits because spending grew even faster, especially Social Security and the public health-care programs for the poor and elderly whose very existence otherwise well-informed Canadian commentators persist in denying. And the regulatory and judicial reach of the state grew even more.

The Citizen deprecated Mr. Reagan as "a most improbable president - an actor with little interest in ideas, a visionary whose connection with reality was often tenuous, by some accounts a shallow man ..." But his declaration that "Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them" is one any Canadian leader would be hard-pressed to match for profundity of thought or felicity of expression. Even so, the financial and electoral dynamics of the welfare state were more than a match for him, unlike the Soviet Union or the spirit of "malaise" in America that Jimmy Carter both diagnosed and helped inspire.

Lessons worth pondering. If we can first manage to remember them.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson