By Mark Green
Ron Reagan and Ron Christie discuss clashing portrayals of Ronald Reagan -- Perlstein's smart, shrewd charmer (The Invisible Bridge) and Cannon's under-informed racantour (Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime). Consensus: he was a shrewd fabulist. And on the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, both Rons lament the Watergate-ization of politics but disagree who's the better president -- RN or BO.
On Perlstein on Nixon. On the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation and publication week of Rick Perlstein's epic, readable The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, the Rons are asked how such a corrupt guy could ever have gotten elected and how the Watergate scandal reverberates still in our politics.
Christie is unapologetic about RN's skills and record, as he grew in stature from the Navy to House to Senate to Vice President and then a twice-elected President, highlighting accomplishments from the EPA to opening of China. Ok, except for the play, Mrs. Lincoln... Christie then allows that while "a person of character, largely", Nixon embodied the Lord Acton aphorism that " absolute power corrupts absolutely." "Though he didn't know about the break-in and bugging beforehand," Christie concludes, "he did know about and participate in the cover-up -- you can't get away with that."
Ron Reagan generously notes that all presidents have some dark sides that aren't known before or during their terms, including Lincoln's intermittent depression. We agree that, in today's cable/social world, it's unlikely that probably our greatest president could have gotten elected (see Eagleton). Christie adds that FDR hid his disability and immobility as JFK did his sexual misconduct... but this "era of innocence" ended on August 8, 1974 when the relationships of the press, public and president permanently changed.
Ron Reagan adds two salient points: first, today's corruption is not as graphic and criminal as Watergate since big money super PACs are a form of corrupt institutionalized bribery; second, the over-use of "Obama's Watergate" defines deviancy down and cheapens political discourse since nothing has recently occurred remotely like Watergate -- when 29 aides including two attorneys general, went to jail. Christie agrees, saying it's ideologically and intellectually lazy to add a "-gate" to every controversy in order to simultaneously exonerate Nixon and tar Obama.
On Perlstein on Reagan.
For his first time, Ron Reagan on the show discusses his father in the context of how the president's stories weren't always accurate but aspired to a "larger truth," how he exploited racial tensions in his 1980 presidential race, and whether "Reaganism can survive without Reagan."
We listen to Perlstein's trenchant comments on NPR's Fresh Air that our 40th president engaged in a "liturgy of absolution" appealing to the patriotic self-regard of millions of Americans, and could take the temperature of the audience in a way that reflected a special brilliance. But how does that portrayal square with Lou Cannon's version of Reagan as an amiable dunce, an under-informed storyteller?
Answers his son:
He was a very intelligent man who wrote his own speeches early as governor and edited all of them. His deficiency, as it was, were his powerful emotions that could influence his thinking and deny realities that others saw. Like the way he never broke with Nixon over Watergate because he couldn't believe that someone he knew and liked could do something like that.
Ron adds that the factual mistakes biographers and books have documented [see Reagan's Reign of Error (Pantheon, 1985 and 1988) by the Host and Gail McColl] were in pursuit of his attempt to tell a larger morale and truth. Or as my book concluded, he made a lot of stuff up but could pass a lie detector test.
What about the way that Governor Reagan and then-President Nixon surfed the wave of anti-student and then anti-minority backlash in the 60s and 70s, which proved cornerstones of their electoral victories? Christie maintains that both parties did that in the 60s. Which was true when Southern Dixiecrats were part of the Democratic coalition but, once white Southerners moved en masse to the GOP after the Civil Rights Acts, the Nixon-Phillips-Buchanan "Southern Strategy" became largely the home of one party.
The Host agrees that no one who knew Ronald Reagan has ever said he demonstrated any racial animus but, wonders his son candidly, "why did he kickoff his 1980 presidential campaign in Nachez, Mississippi talking about states rights?
Hamas, Abbas, ISIS, Netanyahu, I never got to ask him. Presumably his advisors thought it a good idea but it was an obvious play for angry white southerners."
Last: his indisputable charm bonded him to many voters to an extent that he was far more popular than his policies. Can Reaganism today survive without a Music Man to sell them? Ron Christie vigorously insists the answer is yes because President Reagan's character and principles endure to inspire folks still. Ron Reagan has a different view: "What remains really of what's called Reaganism? The Moral Majority of the Nixon-Reagan years has become the Tea Party of today. And can someone explain how the traditional Republican Party of big business and banks has now become the party that denies evolution and climate change and thinks it a good idea to allow guns in kindergarten classrooms?"
On Israel-Hamas. We speak between cease-fires after Hamas violated the first 72 hours one with a rain of rockets. While world opinion is against Israel and only marginally in favor in the U.S., what else can Israel really do? Ron Reagan argues that, while today Hamas is a terrorist organization devoted to eradicating Israel, Hamas thinks the same thing in reverse about Israel... and that at some point Netanyahu has to work harder with Abbas for a two-state solution to avoid endless wars generating new generations of Arabs seeking revenge.
On Obama-ISIS. Oh the irony! A president who won office running against the "dumb war" in Iraq was forced by circumstance into going back in with a specific airlift and air attacks. Did he thread the needle? Christie argues no because of a weak and shifting policy that failed in Syria and encouraged ISIS. What? There was no al Qaeda or ISIS in Iraq until Bush43 invaded and occupied the country... not to mention that Iraq's government wouldn't allow the U.S. to keep a residual force of troops there after our promised pull back in 2011.
Says Ron Reagan: "Why is it that we're the only ones who come in to save the beacon of the Arab World which also fears ISIS? The Saudis have billions at their disposal -- where are they?"
Odds of some American troops having to go back in despite Obama's protestations? Christie: 50/50. Reagan: No.
Mark Green is the creator and host of Both Sides Now.
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