Two summers ago, I found myself in Dixon, Illinois, the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan. (He had been born in Tampico, but the family moved to Dixon when he was 9.) I was enroute from somewhere to somewhere else, but I made this observation in my trip log:
Dixon... struck me as a lot like Reagan himself: what you see is pretty much what you get.
The cynics among us in the 1980s, myself included, pointed out that the man is an actor by trade, fercrissake; of course he's going to come off well. It didn't occur to us at the time that even the greatest actor on earth can't be "on" twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
So it was easy to, as they say today, misunderestimate the man. His philosophies were simple, which some of us translated to "simplistic." For those whose values were expressed best by greyscale, Reagan's insistence on black and white seemed to miss the point. And for those who wallowed in what Jimmy Carter called "malaise," Reagan's reassurance that it was a whole new morning was unpersuasive.
Until, of course, it turned out that the old man had known what he was talking about all along. While his predecessors had treated the Soviet Union as the once and future enemy, now and forevermore, Reagan saw that the Soviet system was doomed, and adopted policies to accelerate the process. At the time, he was mocked and vilified. Time proved he was right, and proved it quickly.
The same derision greeted Reagan's tax plans. But he saw that an enormous amount of money was being absorbed by the simple process of trying to work around the increasingly-Byzantine tax code, and he saw a solution: get rid of most of the brackets and sub-brackets, and kill as many loopholes as possible. The result was a tax code that, while still something of a labyrinth, was more representative of actual taxes paid. Money that had been spent on tax avoidance was diverted to more productive uses.
In 1979, President Carter, mired in an "energy crisis," announced a plan to decontrol oil prices on a gradual basis, and proposed a new tax on oil producers (the so-called "windfall profits tax") to make sure that the decontrol didn't actually mean anything. Eight days into his first term, Ronald Reagan decided "gradual" wasn't fast enough and issued an Executive Order lifting price controls altogether. In 1986, decontrol was proposed for natural gas as well, though full decontrol did not come until 1989. The price at the gas pump has been volatile ever since decontrol, but today's high prices aren't anywhere nearly as high as the inflation-adjusted price before Ronald Reagan.
The cynical anti-Establishment stance of the Sixties and Seventies had become the Establishment. Its advocates were looking forward to extending its reach into the Eighties. Ronald Reagan would have none of that, and said so. And Americans, tired of years of sneers, gladly embraced Reagan and his smile. We're not exactly Augustine's shining city on a hill, but we're entitled to bask in the light once in a while. It's a lesson that took many years for some of us to learn; it's something Ronald Reagan knew from the start, and was happy to share.
Still, if you're looking for Ronald Reagan's legacy, James Lileks shows you where to look:
2004, June 5: I am reminded of the thrill I got when I heard the words "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Because you can sum up Reagan's legacy by polling any random high-schooler and reading that line.
And now stands no more, because Ronald Reagan wouldn't stand for it.
We shall never see his like again, but we are the richer for his having been here.
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Copyright © 2004 by Charles G. Hill