Reaganism

Anthony Holden

  • The United States in the 1980s edited by Peter Duignan and Alvin Rabushka
    Croom Helm, 868 pp, £14.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 8179 7281 1

The news from Britain, and elsewhere, is that the distributors of Ronald Reagan’s yellowing old movies are enjoying a windfall of such proportions that supply – as his economic advisers would note with distaste – cannot possibly accommodate demand. All over the free world, it seems, people are cracking up at the sight of its putative leader being upstaged by Errol Flynn (Santa Fe Trail, 1940), stood up by Bette Davis (Dark Victory, 1939), outdrawn by assorted celluloid cowboys (1936-57, passim) and out-acted by a chimpanzee (Bedtime for Bonzo, 1951).

Here in the United States we cannot, alas, share the joke. For one thing, a Federal Election Commission ruling has banned Reagan’s films from American television during the campaign (lest other candidates demand equal time, though Reagan himself has disarmingly said that he would too). For another, as the campaign has moved towards its conclusion, we have been taking with increasing seriousness the proposition that yesterday’s B-movie ham could be in charge of all our tomorrows.

The campaign so far – I hope this much has seeped across the Atlantic – has scarcely done credit to the issues distinguishing the decade ahead from the single-issue elections of the last twenty years. Carter has refused to debate Edward Kennedy, and now John Anderson, and thus Reagan. Reagan in turn has been bound and gagged by his advisers, their hostage rather than their boss, in the apparent belief that he cannot live up to the media pitches devised by them on his behalf. There has hardly, therefore, been what you might call a dialogue. Ideology has not been to the fore, in a campaign characterised by perhaps the broadest ideological divergence since Johnson v. Goldwater in 1964. Mutual vilification has been the order of the day, Carter’s brand of positive political philosophy being to brand his opponent ‘racist’ and ‘warmonger’, and to avoid at all costs discussion of his own record in office. It may yet pay off – those Georgians are adept above all at winning elections – but I fear the President’s re-election would be at the price of his ability to govern. His only remaining political asset, the belief that he is a decent, honest man of some moral courage, is being remorselessly eroded by his conduct of the campaign.

Reagan’s puppeteers, meanwhile, may be wrong to wrap him in cotton wool. He can weave oratorical magic in front of disenchanted ‘Middle Americans’. There is considerable evidence that the kind of remarks earlier perceived as ‘gaffes’ – that Vietnam was ‘a noble cause’, that Darwin was ‘wrong’ about evolution – strike a large and hitherto unrepresented constituency as blunt truth from a plain-speaking man. If he loses, it may be precisely because his advisers tied a knot in that freewheeling, happy-go-lucky tongue.

But what of the intellectual motor which powers it? There the evidence is rather more skimpy. Reagan partisans are reduced to desperate remedies in defending their man against the ‘primitive’ attacks of such doubters as the present writer. I was recently taken to task (in print) by William F. Buckley Jr, the renowned conservative, for ‘chuckling especially hard’ at one of Reagan’s more esoteric pronouncements: to wit, that ‘80 per cent of pollution is caused by plants and trees.’ By way of refutation, in a column syndicated across the land, Buckley cited his master’s own voice. ‘Well, it seems to me,’ he quoted Reagan as saying in reply, ‘that I remember being taught at school that the overwhelming amount of nitrogen released into the air was from decaying vegetable matter. In fact – I think my memory is correct on this – that’s why, in the 18th century, they gave the name to that great range of mountains in Appalachia, the “Smoky Mountains”.’ Quite, said Buckley. ‘Just one such reply from Reagan deflates the article by Mr Holden on the “arcane aphorisms” of candidate Reagan.’ Though no botanist, and indeed blessed with a thinner recall of my schooldays than the rising septuagenarian, I rest my case.

For an encephalograph on the brains behind Reagan it is necessary, with a sigh, to wrestle such elephantine tomes as this out of the libraries and into the home. Skip the campaign biographies: they are by definition self-serving, and by tradition footloose with mere fact (Reagan’s 1976 effusion had Britons committing suicide in the queues for National Health Service beds). The red meat, though in highly indigestible form, is here.

The candidate’s name is nowhere mentioned, but these essays by some thirty hands comprise the most comprehensive available guide to Reagan country. Many of those thirty are either working on his campaign staff, or are slated for senior positions in his administration, or both. More than half of them are Fellows of the volume’s parent body, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, California, a lavishly-endowed think-tank founded by Herbert Hoover in 1919 ‘to demonstrate, by its research and publications, the evils of the doctrines of Karl Marx’.

If you are not already familiar with Hoover and its works, all you need to know is that it has just three honorary fellows: Friedrich Hayek, Alexander Solzhenitsyn – and Ronald Reagan. The present volume, in other words, would make soothing bedside reading for Mrs Margaret Thatcher, not least because its opening contribution comes from her favourite TV star and economist, Milton Friedman, the man for whom the British economy is now what St Paul’s was to Sir Christopher Wren: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Professor Friedman’s contribution, an extract from his book-of-the-(TV)-film, Free to Choose, is entitled ‘The tide is turning’. This was precisely the phrase he used, when I spoke with him recently, of the present state of Britain under the monetarists. I may safely, therefore, cede all judgment to those of you living under the present dispensation.

The ensuing 200-odd economic pages, from such potentially influential theorists as Alan Greenspan, Martin Anderson (already named as senior domestic adviser-in-waiting) and joint editor Rabushka, amount to a familiar litany of the arguments for the removal of government from the free-market process: less regulation, less taxation, less interference – less government. The solution to the energy shortage, for instance, is to give the oil companies their head. Brief gestures are made towards housing, health and education before a monolithic Part Two on Foreign Affairs. From such former Nixon aides as Fred Ikle, Ray S. Cline (touted as Reagan’s CIA chief) and Edward Teller, soon perhaps to be names as familiar as Vance and Brzezinski, we hear a detailed recitation of the urgent need for a 20 per cent increase in defence spending. There is the most cursory of nods, just 25 pages, towards ‘Foreign Aid and the Third World’. We get the whys, in short, without the hows, behind Reagan’s pervasive commitment to cut taxes, increase defence spending and balance the budget simultaneously. Six Republican candidates were making this promise during the primary campaign. Asked how they would do it, in a televised debate, John Anderson replied: ‘By mirrors.’ Nowhere in this book did I find a better answer.

It is something of a relief to look back at Reagan’s record as Governor of California, which shows him a master of compromise, abandoning most of the positions on which he was elected, cutting many a middle-of-the-road deal with a Democratic-controlled legislature. Though largely run by his advisers, who reduced each issue to a four-paragraph ‘mini-memo’ for his consideration, he was as unable to implement their highly-wrought, more radical programmes as his own simpler Main-Street-America dreams.

The doctrinaire programmes laid out in this book are in the end less disturbing than the bland attitudes which inform them. It is as if American minorities, notably the Black and the Hispanic, were thriving, as if the big cities were booming, welfare an indulgence to be phased out, unemployment a healthy antidote to declining production, bankruptcy and poverty minor inconveniences along the road to recovery. Perhaps some of these people will look out of the window as they journey from Stanford to Washington.

Also conspicuous by its absence from these pages is a section on personal morality in the 1980s. If you think this is a matter for private choice, protected by sundry amendments to the US Constitution, cast an eye over a précis of this book, published in Detroit last July under the title of the Republican Party Platform for the 1980 Presidential Election. Apart from abandoning the party’s forty-year commitment to the Equal Rights Amendment, it proposed, for example, that Federal Judges should henceforth be appointed on the basis of their opposition to abortion. One of the ‘invisible’ issues of the 1980 campaign is the fact that several Supreme Court seats will fall vacant during the tenure of the next President. The two candidates would make very different appointments, and these appointments will endure long after the victor has handed on the Oval Office. Carter or Reagan, in effect, will have the power to condition the moral, social and judicial climate of this country for perhaps the next twenty years. That alone would have me fidgeting nervously in the rear stalls, with one eye cocked on the exit, as good-guy Reagan leads the posse in pursuit of his less virtuous younger brother (Law and Order, 1952).