Sunday, February 28, 2010

Another president's day

"I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the US Congress."
That's a remark Ronald Reagan made, more than a generation ago, as he considered the Congress of his day. One has to wonder, if he could comment on the current scene, if he wouldn't say something along the same lines, if he wouldn't offer to the current occupant of the White House something like... "I feel your pain."

We were reminded recently on the opinion pages of the MWDN that, what with the recent Presidents' Day, we should be aware not only of Washington and Lincoln, but that none other than our 40th president, Ronald Reagan had a February birthday. We were advised to hold that thought in mind in our future observances of the holiday.

And I do think that's good advice. Along with the annual rite of visiting your local automobile dealership, there should be some broader consideration of American presidents and their legacies on President's Day, and Reagan's is a name often invoked with reverence by his countrymen ...many of them anyway. We should indeed give the man's particular legacy due consideration.

But, just as a clear eyed examination of our Founding Father must acknowledge the slave quarters behind Mt. Vernon, and The Great Emancipator must also be understood as one progenitor of the invasive Federalism some complain of today, The Great Communicator must be held to account for what he said, and what he was taken to mean, and where that meaning stands to this day. A quick perusal of the comment thread following the piece in the on-line version of the paper and you can see even the mention of his name still resonates.

Reagan did indeed communicate a clear message, and with wit and concision, as I hope the quote I posted above demonstrates. But at the same time that sunny humor often travelled along with a good amount of internal contradiction. For all the bon mots about profligate spending and the insensate expansion of government, under his administration the federal deficit and —yes, the size of government— expanded. Along with the occasional witty winking slight towards Congress, came Constitutional contempt of the same in the form of Iran-Contra. And somewhere along the line, all the self deprecating humor about government failings (Reagan was the head of our government after all) was taken up, as not only disdain and distrust for government "of and by the people," but as something of deprecation and resentment of and for the people themselves, towards each other.

I'll confess that's the legacy of Ronald Reagan that disturbs me, the way distrust of government, maybe even a healthy distrust, has devolved to a darker disdain for each other in the democratic debate. Among the ranks of the Conservative Cause, those who hold him in the highest regard as an iconic figure, there are far too many with a readiness to discern the "Real" Americans of the Right ...from the rest of us.

It would be nice to believe that Reagan himself would take dim view of some of the uglier rhetoric we're hearing today, like that you heard at the recent CPAC Convention, where lists of the "enemies" among us were recited to applause. "Enemies" no less.

"It is still morning in America," Conservative Pundit Glenn Beck said at the recent gathering, invoking one of The Great Communicator's best loved lines. "It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding, hung-over, vomiting for four hours morning," he continued. "The question is what made us sit there in the john vomiting for four hours?"

And how does he answer his own question? Who is it that sickens Glenn Beck and his friends so? Wherefore that vomiting?

It's not any outside enemy of the state or our society, not even radicals of the present day or from some by-gone era. No, the "cancer, to be cut out" of the American body politic, as Mr. Beck describes it, is a cancer comprised of all those who disagree with him on policy and principle: "Progressives!"

Mr. Beck announces, to the cheers of his fellow Conservative Crusaders, that he blames Progressives, starting with Teddy Roosevelt! ...for that sense he has that he has been vomiting.

I kid you not.

Were Reagan alive in this day and age, it might be enlightening to hear what he had to say, the man himself, not the hollowed out icon. Not about Teddy Roosevelt, we don't need to check with him on that. He was on record citing this ...Progressive, as a hero and a champion of "the virtues and ideals of Americanism" when he issued a presidential proclamation honoring the 125th anniversary of Roosevelt's birth. No, what I think would be interesting is what The Gipper would have to say to those who now proclaim themselves to be his faithful heirs. I'd like to believe the man himself had a more expansive definition of "Americanism" and its virtues and ideals, such that he would take them to task for describing those who simply differ with them as sickening, as enemies, as cancers "to be cut out of our system." For all his often professed disdain for government, I'd like to think Reagan never went so far as to translate that disdain into such blatant contempt for his fellow American citizens, not of the sort we're hearing today from the likes of Glenn Beck.

Reagan once offered that "Protecting the rights of even the least individual among us" was the only valid "excuse" any government has "for even existing." If all that survives of that sentiment for his professed followers is the disdain for government, with nothing of the respect for the individuals among us, nothing of the respect for each other... Well, let's just say the man's political legacy is lacking these years later ...and hopefully it is still a work in Progress.

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