Ronald Reagan: The 40th Retrospective
In 1980, movie actor Ronald Reagan beat incumbent Jimmy Carter in 44 states. The bad news laden Carter administration was replaced by the flag draped conservative rhetoric had strong popular appeal. While he was the epitome of a conservative republican, his role model for the presidency was FDR.
Ronald Reagan was the oldest President ever elected at the time and probably the most unlikely. Conventional wisdom says the brightest people make the best leaders. Well, Reagan was definitely not the brightest person, but he proved to be a terrific leader.
Ronald Reagan enjoyed the Oval office including weekly Mexican lunches with his Vice President George HW Bush. His wife Nancy had great influence over him, including planning his events according to her astrologer. Reagan had few close friends in Washington, but was generally well liked. He was the life of the party.
Ronald Reagan was known as the great communicator who knew how to strike the right chord in trying times. This also earned him the reputation as the chief soother. This was embodied by his response to the Challenger tragedy.
The NASA space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds after liftoff, bringing a devastating end to the spacecraft’s 10th mission. The disaster claimed the lives of all seven astronauts aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire who would have been the first civilian in space. It was later determined that two rubber O-rings, which had been designed to separate the sections of the rocket booster, had failed due to cold temperatures on the morning of the launch. The tragedy and its aftermath received extensive media coverage and prompted NASA to temporarily suspend all shuttle missions.
Even when he faced down the bullet of an assassin, Ronald Reagan exuded calm and reassured the country. His humor endeared people to him, but he was both strong and tough as evidenced by his reaction at a transforming moment early in his presidency.
Assasination Attempt on Ronald Reagan
On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley, Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington D.C. just after the president had addressed the Building and Construction Workers Union of the AFL-CIO. Hinckley was armed with a .22 revolver with exploding bullets and was only ten feet away from Reagan when he began shooting. Fortunately, he was a poor shot and most of the bullets did not explode as they were supposed to. Hinckley’s first shot hit press secretary James Brady and other shots wounded a police officer and a Secret Service agent. The final shot hit Reagan’s limo and then ricocheted into the President’s chest.
Reagan’s management style reflected his Hollywood training. He was the star, and it was up to the rest of the crew to keep the production running smoothly. While this made him look like a puppet, he made the final decisions though he was often disengaged from details of policy. It was rumored he fell asleep at cabinet meetings, though his contention that he also doodled showed his ability to diffuse controversy by poking fun at himself. His lax management style did lead to the darkest episode of his presidency.
The Iran-Contra Affair was a clandestine action not approved of by the United States Congress. It began in 1985, when Reagan’s administration supplied weapons to Iran — a sworn enemy — in hopes of securing the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by Hezbollah terrorists loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s leader. The U.S. took millions of dollars from the weapons sale and routed them and guns to the right-wing “Contra” guerrillas in Nicaragua. The Contras were the armed opponents of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction, following the July 1979 overthrow of strongman Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the ending of the Somoza family’s 43-year reign. The transactions that took place in the Iran-Contra scandal were contrary to the legislation of the Democratic-dominated Congress and contrary to official Reagan administration policy.
Reagan denied knowledge of the illegal scheme, but what would seem farfetched for most administrations was plausible in this case because Reagan was so “out of the loop.” There were certainly people in his National Security Council doing things the President did not know about. While Reagan avoided criminal charges, he did accept responsibility and was forced to backpedal from his earlier statements on the affair.
In spite of this setback, Reagan never wavered from his core beliefs. He famously stated, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem”. This embodied his almost religious devotion to shrinking the size of government, building up the military and lowering taxes. This economic plan led to a boom in the 1980s and record deficits in the 1990s. This is known as Reaganomics.
Reagan claimed an undue tax burden, excessive government regulation, and massive social spending programs hampered economic growth. He proposed a phased 30% tax cut for the first three years of his Presidency. The bulk of the cut would be concentrated at the upper income levels. The economic theory behind the wisdom of such a plan would famously become known as trickle down economics.
The idea is that tax relief for the rich would enable them to spend and invest more. This new spending would stimulate the economy and create new jobs. Reagan believed that a tax cut of this nature would ultimately generate even more revenue for the federal government. The Congress was not as sure as Reagan, but they did approve a 25% cut during Reagan’s first term.
The results of this plan were mixed. Initially, the Federal Reserve Board believed the tax cut would re-ignite inflation and raise interest rates. This sparked a deep recession in 1981 and 1982. The high interest rates caused the value of the dollar to rise on the international exchange market, making American goods more expensive abroad. As a result, exports decreased while imports increased. Eventually, the economy stabilized in 1983, and the remaining years of Reagan’s administration showed national growth.
The defense industry boomed as well. Massive government contracts were awarded to defense firms to upgrade the nation’s military.
Tax cuts plus increased military spending would cost the federal government trillions of dollars. Reagan advocated paying for these expenses by slashing government programs. In the end, the Congress approved his tax and defense plans, but refused to make any deep cuts to the welfare state. Even Reagan himself was squeamish about attacking popular programs like Social Security and Medicare, which consume the largest percentages of taxpayer dollars. The results were skyrocketing deficits.
The national debt tripled from one to three trillion dollars during his administration. The growth that Americans enjoyed during the 1980s came at a huge price for the generations to follow.
Reaganomics is built on the theory that you don’t have to worry about the future. You can cut taxes, raise spending and specifically defense spending without having to worry. Reaganites knew it would lead to deficits, but justified Reagan doing it philosophically and not necessarily as an economist.
Reagan was reelected overwhelmingly in 1984 touting a return of domestic prosperity he called “Morning In America”.
Reagan’s flag waving rhetoric emphasizing the celebration of American virtues allowed his supporters to turn a blind eye to failings including AIDS, women’s rights and homelessness. This all made sense from Reagan’s perspective because he did not believe in using government for what he considered to be social engineering.
Without a doubt, the cornerstone of Reagan’s legacy and his largest claim to presidential greatness is that his leadership ended the Cold War.
Fall of the Soviet Union and End of the Cold War
The struggle to contain and stop spread of communism began with Harry Truman and lasted through every Presidential administration through Reagan. Reagan was the first to make the crusade a publicly moral one declaring that the evil empire will collapse.
However, Reagan was able to use his fiery rhetoric as political cover in taking a softer approach with his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev. In Gorbachev, he saw someone he could negotiate with. They had four conferences which led to actions leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.
This was a surprise to even his cabinet. The first conference in Geneva with Gorbachev had his aides worried he would be overwhelmed by the detail oriented, former engineer, known for being a master of the the intricacies of geopolitics and weapons systems. Instead, the two became fast friends.
Strategic Defense Initiative
The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as Star Wars, was a program first initiated on March 23, 1983. The intent of this program was to develop a sophisticated anti-ballistic missile system in order to prevent missile attacks from other countries, specifically the Soviet Union. With the tension of the Cold War looming overhead, the Strategic Defense Initiative was the United States’ response to possible nuclear attacks from afar. Although the program seemed to have no negative consequences, there were concerns brought up about the program “contravening” the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks years before. For this reason, in conjunction with budgetary constraints, the Strategic Defense Initiative was ultimately set aside.
The nickname “Star Wars” may have been attached to the program for some of its abstract and farfetched ideas, many of which included lasers. Furthermore, the previously released science fiction movie titled “Star Wars,” caused the public to easily associate this program with new and creative technologies. “The weapons required included space- and ground-based nuclear X-ray lasers, subatomic particle beams, and computer-guided projectiles fired by electromagnetic rail guns—all under the central control of a supercomputer system.” By using these systems, the United States planned to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles while they still flew high above the Earth, minimizing their effects. However, there was a large power requirement for these types of weapons — power requirements so vast that nuclear power was the method of choice. Thus, as the reality of creating numerous nuclear plants diminished, so did the ambitious designs. By the end of SDI, the primary focus of the weapons design group was focused on “land based kinetic energy weapons.” These weapons were essentially guided missile projectiles. At the end of the Strategic Defense Initiative, thirty billion dollars had been invested in the program and no laser and mirror system was ever used, not on land, not in space.
The Strategic Defense Initiative was eventually abandoned, and after a few years, it was nothing other than a short chapter in history books. With bold intentions, the Star Wars program was hopeful of a revolutionary defense system, a system which was said to be nearly impenetrable. Yet with political pressure, both domestic and international, combined with budgetary conflicts, the Strategic Defense Initiative was slated for failure from the start. Fear of Soviet retaliation due to violations in the ABM treaty from the first S.A.L.T. talks was a primary factor in these international pressures, but United States legislators and congressmen also argued that a creation of a large anti-ballistic missile system would raise tensions between the two nations and potentially spark a conflict. Because having a pre-emptive strike in a nuclear war would be advantageous, both nations were already on edge and so it was decided that any project which could jeopardize the balance would be discarded.
This was classic Reagan being Reagan. He did not want to take the time to even staff the initiative, and while it was summarily dismissed internally, it was taken very seriously by the Soviets. Their own internal economic problems had them realizing they could not keep up with a possible arms race in space.
So while SDI was not great militarily. it was a master stroke diplomatically. It cemented the idea into the Soviets that they could not compete. In retrospect, it hastened the end of the Cold War.
Fall of the Berlin Wall
In his 1987 visit to Berlin, Reagan put an exclamation point on his rhetoric against soviet communism.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and Ronald Reagan’s supporters would give him credit for both the collapse of the wall and thus the Soviet Union.
The idea that Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War is overblown. It’s more like he was at the right place at the right time. In reality, it was more the work of both Democratic and Republican Presidents, over the course of 40 years, willing to stay the course against the expansionist aims of the Soviet Union.
Reagan died in June 2004. He was eulogized as one of the greatest Presidents of all time. Many wondered if there would be one more face on Mt. Rushmore. While that remains to be seen, what is not is that Ronald Reagan was a substantial figure in American presidential history, a key player in ending the Cold War, and the main figure who revitalized the conservative movement. He assured America it was ok to wave the red. white and blue no matter what.
George H.W. Bush would follow him.
Jimmy Carter preceded him.