THE SPINE JANUARY 23, 2008
It's a little late for my comments on Barack Obama's remarks about Ronald Reagan. But, frankly, if he hadn't said that the Bill Clinton presidency was without especially new ideas, what he said about Reagan's presidency would have been taken as unexceptionable -- except, of course, by the mostly off-key Democratic choir. So I'm going to add a bit to the controversy.
In my memory -- in yours? -- during the sixties, when JFK was president and Michael Harrington reawakened awareness of poverty and John Kenneth Galbraith taught us something about the mechanisms of capitalism and the academy opened itself to ideas about race and Irving Howe and Michael Walzer established a democratic and anti-communist radicalism, the conservatives were utterly bookless. They worshipped at the altar of Hayek and a more cultish figure, Ayn Rand, and that was that for the icons of the right.
The leftish renaissance did not last long, and soon the right had research institutions and graduate programs in elite universities and real thinkers (James Q. Wilson, Leo Strauss, Edward Banfield) and genuinely provocative journals like The Public Interest (comparable to Partisan Review and Dissent before it). It also had Ronald Reagan, who got the knack of it or maybe even had the knack without reading. But it was something in the zeitgeist, a long moment when individualism was not a sin or an offense. Like it or not, it was Reagan's era. And that's about all Obama said or meant.
But thinking about Reagan, I realize he was right about the dominion of communism being "the evil empire," which stretched out from Soviet Russia to the west (East Germany, Bulgaria etc.) and to the east (North Vietnam and Korea) and across the ocean to Cuba. They had to be beaten but we dare not go to war, nuclear war.
And, while I'm being generous with Reagan, let me recall that he was the president who had the openness to refuse to make our undocumented and illegal immigrants haunted and stalked men and women. He was for amnesty in a party that hated it. Now, amnesty did not work out quite as was prophesied. But it represented a generous instinct, and the instinct was Reagan's who carried the country with him. More or less as Obama said.