September 12, 2014


What politicians can learn today from Reagan's unexpected rise to power (Harold Pollack, September 9, 2014, Washington Post)

I caught up with Perlstein last Friday. We discussed Reagan's improbable success. We also discussed many other things: The OPEC oil embargo, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, whether President Obama underestimated the implacability of his political opponents. Finally, we discussed what Perlstein himself has learned from critical essays written about his book. [...]

The story in my book began in 1973. Richard Nixon declared "peace with honor" in Vietnam when there was nothing honorable about it at all. We lost a war. We wasted 58,000 lives, billions of dollars. The government that we'd expended all this blood and treasure to prop up was not only corrupt, but its Army collapsed like a house of cards, much like the Iraq armies today.

While this was happening, Americans were getting the first inkling of something called the "energy shortage." This was a remarkable blow to America's self-image, because people didn't really think of energy as something that you could even have a shortage of. The idea that we could be held hostage by these Arab sheikhs was just completely traumatizing. We were straddling the world like a colossus. We defeated Hitler. We created the first mass middle class. Doubled real incomes.

So you've got Watergate, you've got the Energy Crisis, and then you have Vietnam... For the first time, Americans begin to confront the notion we are not God's chosen nation, the last best hope on Earth. My argument is that this was a time of extraordinary political engagement, which marked America's coming of age as a nation. I quote Kant's definition of enlightenment, which is, "Mankind's emergence from its self-imposed adolescence." In other words, the country was growing up.

The story I tell is that there was always a counter-force pushing against this: this longing for innocence, this longing for the easy answer, that America couldn't possibly fall from this pinnacle of greatness.

That was the force represented by Reagan. It was the wave that he rode. By the time of the bicentennial, there was a remarkable movement in which people were saying, "America doesn't deserve to have a big birthday party. Terrorists are probably going to blow up the celebrations anyway." There were 82 terrorist bombings in the United States in 1975. Suddenly this moment passes and people are realizing this uncritical joyous celebration of patriotism was not that hard to do, after all.

HP: There seems to be an anger underneath your writing, in which you believe that what we needed to do as a nation was to have this reckoning, to come out of our self-imposed adolescence. And then Reagan and others short-circuited that, and we took the easy way out.

Reagan's one unforgivable crime is apparently that he prevented the rest of us from hating America as much as the Left does.  But, of course, that is part of Friend Perlstein's unintended hagiography of  The Gipper. As many fanboys as Reagan has among conservatives, none inflate him to quite that level of greatness.

Posted by at September 12, 2014 11:27 AM

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