I will never forget the stunning Oct. 7, 1962, Time magazine cover that showed Franklin D. Roosevelt weeping, a shining tear snaking its way down his pale and sunken cheek as he surveyed the destruction wrought by the New Frontier—tax cuts, a Republican running Treasury. What an indictment of the Democratic Party; what a dirge for the New Deal.
Oh wait, that didn’t happen.
Well, I do remember the great Time cover of JFK sobbing as he looked down on a cartoon of dope-smoking hippies holding a banner that said “McGovern.” It was the summer of ‘72, and the little bubble over JFK’s head said “Amnesty, Acid, Abortion . . . that’s not A-OK!”
Oh wait, that didn’t happen either.
Could I be correct that they only front-page weeping Republicans, and only laud conservatives when they’re dead?
I refer of course to this past week’s Time magazine cover, which had a picture of Ronald Reagan with a tear drawn in, to illustrate a piece on the current Republican Party. Actually it was a good piece in that it suggested a simple truth: The portion of the Republican Party that is based in and lives off the American capital has lost its way. They used to stand for conservative principles and now they stand for—well, whatever it is they stand for. I’ve written the past few years that the modern Democratic Party has been undone in part by its successes, that it achieved what it worked for in terms of Social Security, the safety net and civil rights, and that a great coalition has now devolved into a mere conglomeration of interest groups. I don’t see why Time shouldn’t similarly indict the Republicans.
I think many of us would agree both parties seem like exhausted little volcanoes, and that they are driven more by hunger than belief.
The Time story turned the discussion again to Reagan and the shadow he casts, and that’s what people are talking about: What would Reagan think, what would Reagan do? So let’s posit the obvious. Reagan was great, a one-man hinge of history. He led and encouraged a national effort to rethink the relations of the individual and the federal establishment, to rethink what was owed to and legitimately expected of the state. He increased our security by increasing our strength and removing from the historical stage an evil ideology that had become an evil empire. “The Soviet Union fell.” It didn’t fall, somebody pushed it.
Here we should stop, for here things become confused. There seems to be a temperamental difference between the two parties regarding their heroes. Democrats are inspired by their greats (FDR, JFK) and spooked by their failures (McGovern, Carter). Republicans ignore their failures (who talks about Hoover?) and are spooked by their greats.
And when you’re spooked by someone, or have been beaten by someone, resentment creeps in.
Democrats look back and think Reagan was magic, or rather had some strange and secret magic. The smile, the charm, the humor—that’s why he looms! It was Mike Deaver and the balloons! It was his optimism! But Reagan never said he was optimistic. He wasn’t “optimistic,” he was faithful and practical. He said we could turn around the economy and beat communism. Then we did it. Which left everyone feeling optimistic.
Reagan should be an inspiration for every person in politics who stands for something at a cost and because it is right.
But he should inspire, he shouldn’t demoralize. Republicans should stop allowing the media to spook them with his memory. Democrats should stop resenting him and dreaming up new reasons behind his success.
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For Republicans especially he should be a reorienting memory. He was modern conservatism. If they are for more government, more spending, a more imposing state, what are they?
For Democrats he should function as a reminder that ideas and philosophy count, that they give politics meaning.
Republicans should take heart from his memory but not be sunk in him or spooked by him. Life moves. Reagan’s meaning cannot be forgotten. But where does it get you if it’s 1885, and Republicans are pulling their hair out saying, “Oh no, we’re not doing well. We could win if only we had a Lincoln, but they shot him 20 years ago!” That’s not how serious people talk, and it’s not how serious people think. You face the challenges of your time with the brains and guts you have. You can’t sit around and say, “Oh what would Lincoln do?” For one thing it is an impractical attitude. Lincolns don’t come along every day. What you want to do with the memory of a great man is recognize his greatness, laud it, take succor from it, and keep moving. You can’t be transfixed by a memory. Hold it close and take it into the future with you.
Reagan himself wasn’t spooked by his predecessors. He wasn’t trying to emulate FDR, the giant of his youth. He just took some tricks from him. (You can use this thing called mass media to talk over the heads of power brokers directly to the people.) Reagan wasn’t trying to be Barry Goldwater or Robert Taft or JFK. He was just being Reagan. He thought that was enough.
In fairness, he didn’t deal with a mainstream media mischievously comparing him, to his disadvantage, with those who came before him. But the point still stands that the candidates this year should be who they are, and if they have any greatness in them, they should find it, and move us all by being themselves.
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Should the media be in mourning that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is no Sam Rayburn? Maybe. One could argue Sam Rayburn lived in the real world and was a man of generally moderate views, at least for his time, who knew what he thought and why. But I can’t imagine it does Speaker Pelosi any good to wake up each morning knowing she’s no Sam Rayburn. And, interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to serve anyone’s agenda to continually make the comparison. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, can call herself the JFK of the race all she likes, but that doesn’t make her look even remotely like that cool and ironic practitioner of politics. It makes her look like a ditzy poseur.
Doesn’t matter what you call yourself, matters who you are. Reagan wasn’t magic. He was serious, farsighted and brave about the great issues of his time. Republican candidates could try that. If they did, it would have a secondary benefit. They’d start respecting themselves instead of merely being full of themselves. This would help them stop being spooked.