Friday, March 27, 2009

Ronald the Great?

A week or so ago, we attended the confirmation open house for the daughter of a good friend of ours. Her brother was in town from California for the event. He is a great guy who I also consider a friend...but...As the night progressed into the wee hours of the morning, we got into a political discussion over a Jack Daniels or two (or several?!? although I was "doing the dew" by then). Eventually, the gentleman from CA raised a point that was sure to send the conservative faithful in the group (mainly me) into full lather. He had the audacity to claim that Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President of these United States, Defeater of the Evil Empire, Lion of Liberty, Defender of Capitalism, Bringer of Prosperity throughout the land, and Grand Shaman of Voodoo Economics...."was not a great man"! In fact, his blasphemy had no bounds as he further claimed that Reagan was simply lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and had NO impact at all on the major moments in history to which he has been given credit! *gasp!*

Well, the debate ranged far and wide and I believe by the end - it was 4 in the morning so I was a little groggy - we formed some sort of compromise opinion. At the very least, I know, we all departed still friends.

The reason I give this background is that the very next day I began reading a couple of books that had startling statements that very much applied to our debate. These assertions, by thinkers no less prestigious than Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Adams, raise a critical question which was really at the heart of our late night debate: is there such a thing as great people or are they simply actors (no pun intended) in great times? It is that question I wish to discuss in this post.

The day after our debate (or actually, later in that same day), I began reading Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis. It is primarily a study of the principle American founders: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton (with some Franklin and Burr thrown in for good measure). Not 40 some pages into this book, and with our tête-à-tête still fresh in my mind, I ran across this quote from Oliver Wendell Homes in the chapter analyzing the impact of the Hamilton-Burr duel: "a great man represents a strategic point in the campaign of history, and part of his greatness consists of his being there" (emphasis mine). That sums up succinctly my admittedly fuzzy recollection of our 4am compromise!

Undaunted, I read on, quickly mowing through that book and on to the sequel/companion book by Ellis, American Creation. Again, barely into chapter one, I was confronted by a similar yet less comforting theme, now expanded and articulated by none other than John Adams.

One of Washington’s most distinguished contemporaries warned, however, that any shift in focus – from emphasizing the historical conditions underlying the American achievement to insisting on the decisive role of prominent personalities – ran major risks of distortion. John Adams sensed this shift happening in the first decade of the nineteenth century…Adams warned that the emphasis on personalities and what historians call “agency” was all wrong…Adams believed that the deification of the revolutionary leaders was transforming the true story of the American Revolution into a melodramatic romance: “It is a common observation in Europe that nothing is so false as modern history,” Adams noted. “I should add that nothing is so false as modern history…except modern American history.” In the Adams formulation, the true history was about chance, contingency, unintended consequences, about political leaders who were often improvising on the edge of catastrophe. Events, not men, were in the saddle, and all the founders were imperfect men rather than gods come down from Mount Olympus. “It was patched and piebald then”, he wrote, “as it is now, ever was, and ever will be, world without end.”[1]
A more explicit description of the same concept, one that should make my west coast friend smile, was provided by Adams’ friend Benjamin Rush in their famous correspondence: “I shall continue to believe that ‘great men’ are a lie” [2]

This exposition provided even more clarity to our blended impression of Reagan. I believe we agreed that Reagan may not have been a great man, at least in the iconic, almost god like terms that historians and worshipers often describe mere mortals, but he was "the man" during a great time. Being now armed with more biographical and historical data on some other ordinary men who presided over a great period in history, I wonder if there is not some comparison that could be drawn that would reinstate Reagan, at least in my friend's mind, (for he needs no reinstatement in my mind), to some place of, if not greatness, then at least influence over the events that surrounded him.

In order to determine of a person or group of persons actually influenced the history they were engulfed in, I propose it is best to hypothesize about what might have happened if their opponents had won the wars of words and policy that they were engaged in. Put another way, were the five founders that Ellis highlights key to the revolution, constitution, and early American government, or were they simply generic and replaceable pawns to the winds of fate? Let's return briefly to the end of the 18th century and speculate "what if..."

  • If Washington had not been chosen to lead the Continental Army the war most likely would have been lost.

  • If John Dickenson had defeated John Adams in the debate over independence in July of 1776, the declaration would not have been approved and independence would not have been declared.

  • If the anti-federalists had defeated James Madison and Alexander Hamilton's arguments in "The Federalist", or if Patrick Henry had won the day against Madison in the Virginia ratifying convention, the constitution would not have been adopted.

  • Although no one at the time could envision someone other than Washington as the country's first president, it is easy to surmise that had Washington declined, as he was want to do, the country may have not made it past its first 4 years.

  • Had Hamilton's economic policies been defeated by Madison and Jefferson, America would have never become an economic super power because capitalism and free markets would not have been the basis for our economy.

  • Had Adams not defeated Jefferson in 1797, we would have moved away from federalism too fast.

  • Had Jefferson not defeated Adams 4 years later, we would have moved too far down the federalist road and more importantly, the Louisiana purchase would never have been transacted
The axiom seems to hold for the five principle founders. None were "great" men, each having significant flaws and each having made significant mistakes (there is no need to recount them here - read the books!) But at every point in the revolutionary and early American timeline, it was crucial that the arguments and policies of these men were the ones that won, for the alternatives at every step of the way would have been disastrous. Ironically, this is even true when the debate was conducted within the inner circle of those five. The conclusion I draw from this is: "there are no great people, but it takes the right people to navigate and succeed in great times."

Flash forward to 1981. Ronald Wilson Reagan has just become the 40th President of the United States of America defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter. When reviewing the 8 years that Reagan was President and the monumental changes that took place in the world and in America during and immediately after that tenure, we must again look at the alternative to see if that history would have held true without Reagan.

The only alternative to Reagan in '81 was Jimmy Carter, and the only likely alternative in '85 (certain alternative with a Reagan first term) would have been Carter's Vice President, Walter Mondale. In other words, the only two possibilities in view for the 8 years are Carter/Mondale (probably), or Reagan/Mondale. During that period, the two most significant events were the rebound of the American economy in which it embarked on a run of prosperity that has never before been seen in this country, and the collapse of Communism.

On the economy, consider this - it was the policies of the Carter/Mondale administration that brought the American economy to its knees prior to the 80's. Only the most deluded dreamer or entrenched partisan could possibly believe that a continuation of those failed policies would have produced the kind of economic turnaround we observed during Reagan's tenure. You may not like trickle-down, supply-side economics, but for that time and situation, they were the right policies.

The fall of communism parallels the revolutionary generation even more, because it was a collaborative effort that produced that momentous turning point in world history. Three leaders form the inner circle this time - Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Just as with the founders, it is hard to envision the outcome if any of these three had been replaced by their opponents.

The runner up in the 1979 British election that was won by Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party was the Labour Party, with James Callaghan at the top of the ticket. The Labour Party proposed disarmament as the means to continued peace. In hindsight, we know that it was in fact the arms race that eventually led the Soviet Union to the brink of economic insolvency. It is hard to envision the British Labour Party, with its disarmament commitment and avowed socialist agenda, putting any kind of pressure, let alone military and economic pressure, on the Soviet Union. Yet without the exertion of such pressure, communism would have been blessed with an environment in which it would not only survive but even flourish.

Mikhail Gorbachev was a leader who embraced reform as the only possible way for his country to avoid economic catastrophe and to emerge from world-wide isolation. It is simply impossible to imagine the Soviet Union progressing to a free market economy and democratization under any other leader. The only other candidate for the leadership of the country was Grigory Romanov, who, while being a reformer, was still committed to socialism.

That brings us to Reagan? Jimmy Carter's foreign policy disasters should be clear indication that he was not the proper man to face down the "Evil Empire". Coupled with the Democrat Party position favoring disarmament, continued Carter and then Mondale Presidencies would have been as ineffective as a Great Britain run by the Labour Party in forcing the Soviet hand and facilitating Communism's collapse.

As was true for the birth of the Republic and the principle founders, it is clear that the collapse of Communism would not have happened had any of these three leaders been replaced by their chief rivals.

I am now content with the proposition that Reagan was not a great man, as long as it is accepted that the same is true of Washington and Lincoln and Roosevelt and Kennedy. But like those other leaders, and like the founding fathers, faced with the daunting and ominous challenges of a great time Reagan was uniquely suited and gifted to face the crisis and the world would not have profoundly changed if another person had taken his place. That may not make him a great man, but it made him the right man for the job.

1. Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2007), p. 5-7.
2. ibid

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