Reagan's genius was that he trusted politics and democracy

October 01, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Ronald Reagan is 84 and ailing; it seems likely that soon he will be gone. When that happens he will be widely mourned, for to many Americans middle-aged and younger he was the most popular and respected president of their lifetimes.

Newsweek, recognizing this and wanting to stay ahead of the curve, has him on its cover this week, keyed to a rather saccharine and condescending piece by Eleanor Clift about the ''long-troubled'' Reagan family and how the former president's illness has brought its members back together. It's mostly supermarket-tabloid stuff.

The issue also contains, however, an essay by former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan on the roots of his popularity. What made him so distinctive, and why even today does he seem to tower over the four presidents who preceded him and the two who have followed? Ms. Noonan knows, and puts it lucidly.

He stood for big change, not cosmetic course adjustments. He knew what he believed, and why. He had personal style and dignity. And, perhaps most of all, the heart of what he believed and said between 1964 and 1988 turned out to have been right then and even more obviously right in 1995.

''He said the Soviet Union was evil and an empire, and it was; he said history would consign it to the ash heap, and it did. Thirty-one years ago in The Speech . . . he said: high taxes are bad, heavy regulation is bad, bureaucracies cause more ills than they cure and government is not necessarily your friend. It could have been given by half the congressional candidates of 1994 -- and it was.''

Peggy Noonan's essay says eloquently why so many of us continue to admire Ronald Reagan. But it doesn't address what I think is a much more interesting question: Why so many Americans, especially those with inherited money and the best education and a high degree of cultural polish and sophistication, continue to scorn him.

It's too simple to say that it's because they tend to be liberal and he was an outspoken conservative. That makes sense as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. The visceral anti-Reagan sentiment I continue to encounter, often in people I know well and tend to like, goes beyond politics. It has to do with social class, and with the instinctive affinity of the American upper middle class with the status quo.

When I was a college undergraduate in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a set of social attitudes that absolutely made my skin crawl. It was more prevalent in my parents' generation than my own, and at the time I associated it, perhaps unfairly, with Republicanism. It may be one reason I've never been able to register as a Republican myself.

The people I'm referring to were uniformly well educated and financially comfortable. They read the newspapers, followed current events attentively, and considered themselves good citizens. They might even have agreed that some laws of that time, which restricted certain Americans, because of their race, from enjoying all the normal rights of citizenship, were wrong.

But they did nothing to change those laws. And they considered those who were trying to change them, whether by demonstrating in the streets or filing suit in the courts, to be troublemakers and undesirables. These wise, well-tailored people urged caution. In the face of great wrong, they counseled patience, and they did nothing.

Although they would be shocked to be told so, many of the wise and well-tailored people of today -- the ones who were appalled at Ronald Reagan's challenge to totalitarianism abroad and to out-of-control government at home -- are the intellectual heirs of those who disdained the activists of the '50s. They view the Reaganites as, well, troublemakers and undesirables.

They don't see themselves as ideologues, they see themselves as denizens of the sensible center of the political spectrum. They call, like Bill Bradley and Colin Powell, for a vague new purified politics from which the noise and rudeness of traditional political conflict has been somehow filtered out. And they yearn for candidates whom the unwashed rabble will docilely follow to this brave new fumigated world.

Beyond left and right

David Brooks, in a piece on these earnest people in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, writes mockingly of their never-never Land Beyond Left and Right. Those who believe in it he calls the Beyondists, and notes tartly that ''In a world in which to be liberal is politically untenable and to be conservative is socially unacceptable, it is a wonderful thing to be beyond left and right.''

Ronald Reagan was not a Beyondist. He wasn't afraid of democratic conflict, of doing battle in an arena where all ideas are welcome and open to challenge. That's why many of us will one day mourn him, and a few others will never be able to comprehend why.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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