Ronald Reagan's paradoxes drove Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edmund Morris to the unorthodox solution of using his own biography to explain Reagan's. Handpicked to write the "authorized" Reagan biography, Morris found that even unprecedented access to Reagan materials left him scratching his head.
For many Americans, Morris' comment expresses the challenge Ronald Reagan's life presents, for like prospectors seeking a mother lode it seems the entire country has an obsession to understand our fortieth President. It will be interesting to see whether a century from now he will continue to attract those seeking some magic formula for leadership. The recent controversy over Barack Obama's comments about Reagan, again brought home how much this President still remains a cipher. I hope the following essay will also stimulate some debate.
Damned if I can figure him out. Is he a political genius or a bore? [p. 5]
The paradox of Ronald Reagan inserts itself early into his First Inaugural where he makes the statement most associated with him:
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people.
What is virtually never quoted is the final sentence of this paragraph:
The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.The current Republican Counterrevolution loudly broadcasts that they represent the true heirs of Ronald Reagan, but this sentence runs totally counter to the Counterrevolution's core belief that inequality is the prime mover of America. Democrats and Liberals, including me, have long seen Ronald Reagan as ushering in the end of the New Deal, yet here is Reagan sounding like FDR or Woodrow Wilson.
These two perspectives capture the paradox of Ronald Reagan: he is the President we associate with anti-big government rhetoric and yet on the other hand in the above quotation he seemingly advocates equitable solutions that resonate with the New Deal. In that paradox lies the political differences that have split this country since Reagan delivered those words looking out towards the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and the white stone obelisk of the Washington Monument.
As you might expect, some commentators have resolved the paradox by viewing the speech as an example of Reagan's desire to please all Americans.
In a paper, "Ronald Reagan and the New Conservative Populism," historian Terri Bimes writes:
The striking feature of Reagan’s First Inaugural Address is the extent to which he toned down the more antagonistic themes from his earlier rhetoric and instead quickly moved toward consensual, unifying rhetoric.Others have acknowledged the ambiguity. William Safire wrote a New York Times op-ed piece that sees Reagan's Inaugural as part FDR and part Barry Goldwater:
An FDR-style warning of economic peril, coupled with an attack on big Government as the source of our problem...[and more consensual themes] evoking memories of patriotic fervor, national will, and individual sacrifice.The remainder of the speech only heightens the paradox. Reagan immediately follows his remark about equity with a paragraph about special interest groups, which he turns into a tribute to:
Men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we're sick--professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers. They are, in short, "we the people," this breed called Americans.This has been standard political rhetoric since the earliest days of the Republic--only the list of jobs has changed. In the context of the times, however, the "working Americans" line echoes those on the right who used it as a code word for an anti-poor, anti-welfare and sometimes even racist agenda.
On the other hand, Reagan's next paragraph revives the equity theme, restating it by repeatedly using the phrase "all Americans."
This administration's objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs. All must share in the productive work of this "new beginning," and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America, at peace with itself and the world.For those of you doing word counts, the word "all" appears five times. Contrary to the image of Ronald Reagan as a rabid ideologue in the mode of many Goldwaterites, this is inclusive rhetoric. There is nothing in these words of the divisive, name-calling rants of self-proclaimed Reagan heirs such as Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly. This is not the divide-and-conquer language of a Karl Rove or Grover Norquist.
Yet no sooner has he finished exalting equity, than Reagan then returns to his anti-government rhetoric. The next six paragraphs reiterate this theme over and over, with sentences that must have warmed the hearts of conservatives who had longed to put an end to the New Deal. He even manages to work in the old states' rights doctrine dear to the heart of former Dixiecrats now turned Republican.
It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people.Then comes the paragraph I not only consider the most remarkable in Reagan's Inaugural, but the most memorable.
It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.
It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.
How can we love our country and not love our countrymen; and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they're sick, and provide opportunity to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?It is amazing that these words have neither been widely-noted nor widely quoted. There is virtually no mention of them in any of the literature I have reviewed. Perhaps it is because they do not fit any of the conventional portraits that have been drawn of this President, but instead only add to the paradox.
The wording of this paragraph fascinates me. The key word is "we," which Reagan seems to be using in the collective sense of all Americans. "We" are to "reach out a hand when" our "countrymen" fall and "heal the sick." In other words, "we" have an obligation to help those in need.
The final words of the paragraph represent as clear and eloquent a statement of the level playing field as any spoken during the last century. Note especially that Reagan goes beyond the usual platitudes to state the equity must be something tangible "in fact, not just in theory." Curiously the president whose words these phrases most resemble is Woodrow Wilson.
Nor have we studied and perfected the means by which government may be put at the service of humanity, in safeguarding the health of the Nation, the health of its men and its women and its children, as well as their rights in the struggle for existence. This is no sentimental duty. The firm basis of government is justice, not pity. These are matters of justice.But where Wilson specifically mentions government, Reagan does not. So we are left to ponder how will this "we" Reagan evokes provide for the imperatives he cites? Given this speech embraces the level playing field in one paragraph and then reverts to the ideology of the Republican Counterrevolution in the next, the critical question about Ronald Reagan relates to his own youth as a lifeguard. Did the man whose role was to save those who got in over their heads believe in helping them, even if it was their own fault, or did he believe in sink or swim, as William Graham Sumner would have it?
This question lies at the heart of understanding Ronald Reagan and his connection to the Counterrevolution. William Graham Sumner was a turn-of-the-century Yale professor and prominent Social Darwinist who believed in sink or swim. If someone was in over the head financially or other wise, Sumner thought that charity only served to perpetuate these weaker people. In Sumner's view those who struggled to overcome their near-drowning became stronger. The problem with Sumner lies in the truth we all acknowledge, which is that sometimes people accidentally step into a hole that puts them in over their heads and if no one is there to rescue them, they drown.
Perhaps the best answer to where Reagan stands on this issue comes in a speech Garry Wills alerted me to—Reagan’s 1981 address at Notre Dame, a speech he predictably wove around the story of Knute Rockne's famous "win one for the Gipper" pep talk and his own movie role as George Gipp. At Notre Dame, Reagan gave his own interpretation of the movie most associated with him. In a large sense he was analyzing his own life:
Later in the speech he would say:
It was to his team that Rockne told the story and so inspired them that they rose above personal animosities. For someone they had never known they joined together in a common cause and attained the unattainable.
Now these are not words one would associate with either of the Presidents Bush or even with the Goldwaterites. Something far more interesting is going on here that leads me to offer a radical reinterpretation of the man people nicknamed "the Gipper." Far from being a rigid break with the New Deal and its idea of the level playing field, Ronald Reagan is a transitional figure whose life was guided by what I term the teamwork myth.
Is there anything wrong with young people having an experience, feeling something so deeply, thinking of someone else to the point that they can give completely of themselves? (Quoted in Wills, pp. 146-147).
Ronald Reagan believed in a collective group functioning as one around a clear goal, which is why athletics weaves through so much of his life. But it is also the moral of his famous story about the bomber pilot and the wounded gunner. In Reagan’s telling, the gunner is trapped at his post unable to escape the crippled aircraft so the pilot, who is unable to extricate him, says, “We’ll ride this down together.” As several writers would point out, the story has to be false because if both went down with the plane, neither would have lived to tell the tale. When Reagan told the story to Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton during their visit to the White House, both of them found it ridiculous.
This is no William Graham Sumner story. Sumner would have found it as absurd as Keaton and Beatty. With his cold "survival of the fittest" logic, Sumner would have said, if the gunner managed to get himself trapped that was his problem. He also would have pointed out that the pilot's act made no sense, since if the pilot had chosen to rescue himself he would have lived to fly more missions.
But Reagan's twist to the level playing field consisted in believing that everyone on the “team” had a responsibility for everyone else. That is the moral of the doomed gunner story as well his citing the “win one for the Gipper” speech of Knute Rockne. Even in death, George Gipp asked that his dying somehow benefit the team. In the old tradition of the "captain goes down with the ship," the pilot could not leave the gunner.
Reagan himself remained the consummate team player throughout his life. Wills writes:
He functions best as part of a production team. (p. 371)Even when General Electric fired him, he took one for the team, refusing to criticize the decision which clearly was made on political grounds. Where government fits into this philosophy, lies in Reagan’s view of America as a team. As a student at Eureka College, Reagan had taken part in a strike against an administration which his memory fashioned into a team-centered morality tale. The college president had proposed a reorganization plan with drastic cuts that in Reagan's words:
Was equivalent to cutting the heart out of the college. (Wills, p. 54)The students responded by demanding the president's resignation and when the trustees refused, they went on strike. In a sense the Eureka strike mirrored his quarrel with the Democrats over what had happened to government. To Reagan, the federal government, like the Eureka administration, had grown too out of touch.
Curiously Reagan’s teamwork philosophy makes him closest to Dwight Eisenhower, his fellow Midwesterner whose military view of reality paralleled Reagan’s athletic mental model. Wills notes Reagan's governing strategies resembled Eisenhower's, but he does not mention this other, more crucial philosophical parallel.
However, Reagan never became an Eisenhower. The story of his administration in the numerous biographies or the telling oral histories of those who worked with him is one of turmoil. In an oral history interview conducted by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, longtime Reagan aide Lynn Nofziger captured the mood:
There were too many people in that White House, I think, who thought that Reagan should do what they wanted done instead of doing what Reagan wanted done.There was a saying, most associated with Nancy Reagan, of “let Reagan be Reagan,” but those warring over his soul never really allowed that to happen. Nancy Reagan, often stereotyped as the Lady Macbeth of his administration, fought for her husband with mixed results. Nofziger believes Nancy Reagan made a huge mistake in overruling the choice of long-time Reagan aide Ed Meese for the position of Chief of Staff in favor of James Baker, whose main loyalty has always been to the Bush clan.
The war within the Reagan administration also was complicated by the assassination attempt, which left him incapacitated at a crucial time (Nofziger's interview reveals how close Reagan came to death) and the still unanswered question about when his Alzheimers first manifested itself. Reagan's hands-off leadership style and his well-known reluctance to fire people (which stems from his team philosophy) also played a role. The story of the Reagan Administration could be summed up with the observation that the paradox of Ronald Reagan became America's paradox, splitting the country in two.
The unreconstructed Sumnerites in his administration constantly sought to bend Reagan to their will, but were never completely successful. Reagan, for example, went totally against them by agreeing to a tax increase—for the team. Meanwhile Social Conservatives never won him over either. Their causes—abortion, school prayer—never became make-or-break issues for Reagan. The editors of his collected works point out that in all his speeches and other writings, Reagan only mentioned abortion once.
The heart of Ronald Reagan, as opposed to those who claim to be the keepers of Reaganism, lies in his belief that government, like the Eureka administration had lost touch with the “team.” In fairness to Reagan, any objective observer has to acknowledge that there is some merit in Reagan's criticism of big government, as anyone who has dealt with a government agency can testify.
Ronald Reagan never read Max Weber, but his critique of government has an eerie parallel with Weber's. A German who wrote in the early years of the twentieth century before "bureaucracy" had become a dirty word, Weber believed that organizations made up of professional civil servants were essential for modern society. He wrote:
The purest type of exercise of legal authority is that which employs a bureaucratic administrative staff. (Parsons, p. 333)While historians, sociologists and political scientists have generated a considerable literature modifying, improving upon and discounting Weber, he still is recognized today as one of more important early voices attempting to understand the bureaucratic society that would characterize modern institutions from business to education.
Yet Weber also saw bureaucracy's dark side. He predicted that bureaucrats themselves might zealously guard their positions and their turf to the detriment of society. He also worried increasing specialization could hamstring bureaucracies. But most of all, he feared bureaucracies could become rigid and inhuman. Weber often uses the metaphor of the machine to describe efficient bureaucracies, but he recognized that people were not machines:
The individual bureaucrat cannot squirm out of the apparatus in which he is harnessed...In the great majority of cases he is only a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march. (Gerth and Mills, p. 228)Weber believed that bureaucracies could become immovable, impersonal and intractable. This led him to speculate about the relationship between bureaucracies and democracy. In a passage that anticipates Ronald Reagan he wrote:
'Democracy' as such is opposed to the 'rule' of bureaucracy..Under certain conditions democracy creates obvious ruptures and blockages to bureaucratic organization. (Gerth and Mills, p. 231)When Weber foresaw that the qualities of individualism and equity that come with democracy will at some point lead people to resist specialization and becoming a "cog in an ever-moving mechanism," he could have been writing about Ronald Reagan.
In a curious way, our oldest president, a man in whose mind mingled the small town Midwest, Hollywood glitz and Knute Rockne myths, reframed the crucial question Weber raised, a question that has become perhaps the most crucial issue of this new millennium: how do we remake government so it is more responsive to the people?
In the years after the First Inaugural, Reagan himself would lean more and more to the anti-government side, as his administration began the rollback of many New Deal reforms. Interviews with Nofziger and some of the other members of the Reagan inner circle suggest a much more complex image of the man and his presidency, than either liberals of conservatives have been willing to acknowledge. Perhaps the major irony of Ronald Reagan's life is that the man who worshiped teamwork, never really had a team.
Two decades later neither Republican nor Democratic Presidents have provided a satisfactory answer. The Bushes, father and son, with much prodding from Karl Rove and others tried to take America back to the era of William Graham Sumner. Meanwhile in the uncertain winds that have become the Reagan legacy, Bill Clinton could only triangulate, like a sailboat captain whose only concern is to weather the storm.
So Ronald Reagan’s challenge remains unanswered. It still awaits someone who will get beyond Sumnerism and triangulation. Whether Reagan’s teamwork philosophy with its echoes of Franklin Roosevelt and even Abraham Lincoln fosters a “new birth of freedom," in Lincoln’s words, represents a curious anachronism or ends up a footnote that echoes the feelings Beatty and Keaton had about the bomber pilot story remains an open question.
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