Remember the real Reagan

The news that Nancy Reagan had passed away left me wistful, almost nostalgic for the 1980s, so I spent the better part of an hour last weekend looking at old news clips on YouTube, reliving those supposedly halcyon mornings in America. One video clip making the rounds is of Ronald Reagan at a 1980 Republican presidential debate in Texas. Mr. Reagan was asked about his immigration policy. He responded: “I think the time has come that the United States and our neighbors—particularly our neighbor to the south—should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we’ve ever had. But I think that we haven’t been sensitive enough to our size, and our power.”

One wonders whether Mr. Reagan would find a home in today’s Republican Party, or whether his compassionate conservatism would make him persona non grata. That would be ironic, considering how often he is invoked by G.O.P. presidential candidates. Yet do Mr. Trump et al. really know what they’re doing when they call upon the intercession of the sainted Gipper? To be sure, Mr. Reagan was no liberal. Yet with huge exceptions (the AIDS crisis comes to mind), Mr. Reagan was a politician of principle who nonetheless viewed politics as the art of the possible and compromise as an indispensable color in the artist’s palette.

Advertisement

Mr. Reagan’s worldview, in other words, was nimbler and more nuanced than the caricature painted by the likes of Fox News. To wit: Mr. Reagan, it is frequently said, believed that government is the problem rather than the solution. Yet what Mr. Reagan actually said in his 1980 inaugural address was subtler: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Mr. Reagan was not promulgating an immutable ideological dogma but proffering a diagnosis of what ailed the body politic at a specific political and social moment. That’s a far cry from the government-can-do-no-good politics of the current moment.

Mr. Reagan also incurred the wrath of his fellow conservatives. George Will once said that President Reagan, by proposing the abolition of nuclear weapons at a Cold War summit, had essentially abandoned his ideological commitments: “For conservatives,” Mr. Will wrote in 1988, “Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy has produced much surprise, but little delight.” Newt Gingrich described Mr. Reagan’s 1985 meeting with Chairman Gorbachev as “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”

We should keep this in mind when Senator Ted Cruz suggests that President Obama is the leading state sponsor of terrorism, as he did last year; or when a sitting U.S. Senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, refers to the secretary of state as “Pontius Pilate” for negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. As Mr. Reagan once said, “there you go again.”

We should also keep the real Reagan in mind when assessing the pope’s recent comments about Mr. Trump and his proposed great wall of Mexico. As Mr. Reagan said in that same debate in 1980, rather than “talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then, while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can go back, and cross. And open the border both ways, by understanding their problems.”

Pope Francis said that a politician who talks about only building walls instead of bridges does not represent the Christian viewpoint. By that standard, regardless of whatever else he was, it would seem that Mr. Reagan was certainly a Christian.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
lurline jennings
2 years 9 months ago
Fr. Matt, As usual you offer an alternative perspective to our problems in today's world. Thank you. It was a fine clarification of an often misquoted statement presented by President Reagan.
William Rydberg
2 years 9 months ago
It's funny, because my recollection of former President Reagan was that he was ready to go to Nuclear War if need be without reference to the American people under certain circumstances which he held was at his personal discretion, that he thought that First-Strike Nuclear Military Doctrine was the way to go. As far as I know, even under the former Clinton, the two Bushs, and now President Obama the First-Strike Military Nuclear Doctrine continues even though the United States of America is the World's only Superpower. In my opinion,There are in fact two candidates now running for top of the Democratic Party Presidential position. Please be impartial. You may wonder why As a Canadian I have anything to say on Nuclear Arms Policy, but next time you watch the Classic Movie "Dr Strangelove", as well as numerous other films, note that they consider it a success if they take down incoming Nuclear missiles as they fly over Canada. Senator Mr Sanders is from Vermont, and Vermont is where a branch of my relations come from and its Northern State Border is Canada. Nuclear Fallout doesn't stop at the border crossing. We farm the same land mass and drink the same water and breathe the same air. Be not afraid... Just my opinion, in Christ, Blessed be the Holy Trinity
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 9 months ago
A valuable reflection, Fr. Malone. Also, perhaps mercifully, there was only one debate between the two presidential candidates in 1980. Carter-Reagan Debate Transcript http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-28-1980-debate-transcript Viewing the debate, or reading the transcript, reminds us that Reagan was not elected by a bunch of neo-con invaders who arrived from another planet, but by a majority of American voters who believed that things were not going well for them, and that Reagan's proposals made sense to them. Valuable history.
Lisa Weber
2 years 9 months ago
Nostalgia for the 1980's and/or Ronald Reagan is just that - nostalgia. That era had its own difficulties and President Reagan introduced a "government is the problem" concept that has refused to go away. Society has some tasks that only the government can accomplish. Refusing to govern does not make a good government, it makes a paralyzed government. The Tea Party and Republicans have brought us ugly rhetoric and government paralysis. The "conservative" label has come to mean "I've got mine, too bad about yours."
Stuart Bintner
2 years 9 months ago
While I generally think of the Reagan years as a period of decline for the nation (deregulation especially comes to mind), Fr. Malone's point is well taken. Taking statements or policies and pushing them to an illogical extreme has placed the nation in a precarious situation. Mr. Reagan would not likely find a political home in the current GOP.
Susan Parlamento
2 years 8 months ago
Bravo! Refreshing, thoughtful, compassionate...bravo!

Advertisement

The latest from america

In his World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis warned against the vices that are too often linked to politics today and do not build peace in society.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 18, 2018
The request is a clear indication that children, not the reputation of the church, will be the paramount concern at this meeting.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 18, 2018
As today’s Gospel suggests, righteousness is no guarantee of a smooth life.
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 18, 2018
The very best television is like an Ignatian contemplation: It tells stories that offer us some kind of gift—an insight or encouragement for our lives.
Jim McDermottDecember 18, 2018