06 June 2004

Mourning in America

Ronald Reagan

40th President of the United States

I confess that I'm ordinarily not one for speaking kindly about Ronald Reagan, but tradition calls for us to do so, and I do have two good things to say about him.

The first is political. Many people believe that Reagan won the Cold War by spending the Soviets into the ground. I'm not convinced by that, but I do give him credit for recognizing the moment when it came. Gorbechev was struggling to bring the Soviet state to a soft landing. Reagan spoke to Gorbechev, recognized his intentions, and made sure to cut enough slack to let Gorbechev succeed.

It's easy to forget the tragedy that could have happened. Had Reagan simply read Gorbechev as deceitful — as he had every reason to do — Gorbechev would not have had the successful relationship with the US as political capital to work with. Worse, had Reagan tried to pressure the Soviets while they were appearing weak, it would have complicated the situation: one could imagine it becoming ammunition for the hard-liners in the Soviet state, making it impossible for Gorbechev to pursue reform. The Soviet state still would have collapsed, but with bloodshed within and perhaps a violent last gasp that would have endangered the rest of the world.

As the Vulcan proverb goes, “Only Nixon could go to China.” We are lucky that Gorbechev appeared on Reagan's watch.

(Added later: Fred Kaplan lucidly makes a similar argument in Slate.)

The second is a very small debt I owe Reagan. Thanks to him, my very small repetoire of voice impersonations includes Jimmy Stewart.

Some years ago, watching a TV biography of Stewart, I learned about his service as a bomber pilot in WWII. Later in the bio, they had an interview snippet with Reagan. Ordinarily, I am immune to Reagan's alleged charm, but telling a story about Jimmy Stewart he was able to get me.

Being Hollywood actors, of the same generation, active in conservative politics, they often found themselves speaking at the same event. Reagan described how he would often remind people that Stewart was a war hero. On one occasion, the person introducing Stewart to the audience beat Reagan to the punch, and described how Stewart had piloted a bomber with the rank of Leutenant. When Reagan came to the microphone a bit later, he corrected the earlier speaker, saying that Stewart had served with the rank of Colonel.

Reagan then described how Stewart approached him afterward, and quoted Stewart, doing a bang-on impression of Stewart's mannerisms and cadences. “Actually, Ron, that first speaker was — well, he was right, you see. They gave me a promotion when they discharged me from the service, but, well, I was a Leutenant when I was flying. But I — but I didn't want to say anything because — because I liked the way it sounded.”

I've been able to do Jimmy Stewart ever since. Thank you, Mr. Reagan.

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