An African American blog of politics, culture, and social activism.
We should never confuse style versus substance. However, Americans often do. Throughout the next few weeks there will be a lot written about former President Ronald Reagan that celebrates the centennial of his birth. Reagan hagiography is in the air. It is fitting that special attention periodically is given to people who have had an historical impact be it good or bad. But I have a concern that in the oncoming weeks people will again repeat only a one dimensional side of President Reagan and will make claims about him that seem patently untrue according to the historical record. Some of this may be because they are still mesmerized by his camera ready and rhetorical style speaking capabilities honed in his profession as a film star and spokesperson for General Electric. However, from many historical accounts even by his close staffers, the former president had only minimum understanding about economics, public or foreign policy. Nevertheless, he was masterful at being able to communicate a few central themes to the American people some of which played into their prejudices and perhaps falsely reassured them of the United States place in the world.
There is no doubt that Reagan should be credited with accomplishing one big important thing during his presidency: the movement away from the path of nuclear destruction with the former Soviet Union. It was during his presidency that the nearly fifty years of Cold War began to thaw. He and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Supreme Chairman of the Communist Party, found a working relationship and began to move away from overt militarism between the two nuclear powers. That would be an accomplishment for any leader. So President Reagan is due the praise and attention for that legacy. Yet, above all else most Americans liked his sense of style, how he appeared as a brave and witty hombre in the saddle staring down his enemies.
Repeatedly former President Reagan’s political opponents underestimated his political abilities and his determination. When he ran for governor of California he first defeated Governor Edmund Brown (the father of sitting Governor Jerry Brown). He also defeated former President Jimmy Carter, who by most measures was intellectually ten times smarter than Reagan, but who could not convey a winning message to the American people. Historical facts document that both Brown and Carter had more substantive policy knowledge on the key issues that Californians and Americans needed to face squarely, but they could not convey to the voters as smooth as Reagan, why they should be kept in office and so they lost. Reagan ran using his central strengths—his core convictions on American nationalism and anti-governmental intervention on almost anything, especially taxes. Reagan years of practice as an actor prove to be his real strength. He could deliver a speech and look into a camera and make the voters believe in his vision as a leader.
Reagan’s political strengths as an effective communicator however, were no substitute for the lack of knowledge on substantive policy, which often conflicted with his rhetoric. The record shows that it was during Reagan’s tenure that the United States a debtor nation. Under his leadership the country racked up unprecedented gigantic budget deficits against the backdrop speeches of fiscal responsibility. He, like his GOP presidential predecessors, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, neglected the aging infrastructure of big cities and missed the opportunity of putting the American educational establishment on a better track. He was able to dismiss the important role of urban centers to American life by playing into racial prejudices of most fearful white working class Americans, the so call “Reagan Democrats” and white Southerners who both switch parties because African Americans were challenging their electoral hegemony as Democrats in big cities like Detroit and throughout the South.
Reagan’s version of American nationalism also hurt the United States globally as well. The truth was then that the “third world” was in actuality “two-thirds” of the world’s population and 300,000 million Americans paled in comparison to 1 billion Chinese and Indians in the world. However disparate third world countries may appear to have been back then, they were not simply brown, black, and yellow dupes of the former USSR as Reagan policy makers treated them. Those countries had the same ambitions to be global actors just as Americans. Reagan’s policies and message often seemed to only reinforce United States racialized perceptions of other people around the world, especially “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s apartheid regime. These perceptions were historically rooted in the transatlantic slave trade which in 1898 found new life during the Spanish-American war that made the United States a power in the Pacific.
Nevertheless, despite the frequent contradiction of style versus substance, in our system of government, Reagan ought to be credited for winning two terms as president. I still believe in certain respects he ushered in some of the most regressive policies both domestically and abroad which at times hurt the most vulnerable people. Success, however, is contagious. The GOP presidential aspirants have run to be Reagan-lite’ ever since. These candidates unfortunately do not have any of the genuine talent or gracefulness as a spokesman Reagan possessed. It is my hope that President Obama can learn something from the Reagan era toward moving the country with both style and substance.