Reagan at 100: A Cartoon Legacy

By Herb Block

On Sunday, February 6, 2011, Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday will be celebrated in the nearby towns of Dixon and Tampico. To many Republicans, Reagan is close to the second coming of Christ. Reagan is quoted more by modern Republicans than the man most associated with the party in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. But to most historians, Reagan’s legacy is not what modern Republicans claim it to be. In fact, it is quite mixed.

I, myself, have blogged on the legacy of Reagan before (and here, too). He truly is an enigma to me. As the chief executive, no major legislation that has any effect exists from his terms. NONE! Granted, there was a Democratic Congress, but still, he could not get one thing passed that impacts our lives today? Is Reagan’s legacy wishful thinking? Sure, he made Americans feel good about themselves after the malaise of the 1970s. But unemployment went down slightly (after an initial jump to 10% in 1982) over the eight years. Reagan’s greatest strength as chief executive was his ability to deliver a good speech. And that he did…time after time after time. But does that make Reagan a great President? To some it does.

As I sit and work on my doctorate from time to time, my second topic of choice was always how Reagan is treated in textbooks. Looking at the US History textbook, Reagan gets two sections in a chapter on the rise of the Republicans. Once section discusses supply side economics, the other section Reagan’s fight against Communism. My friend and former Union Representative, Dave, recently wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper derailing against Ronnie on this auspicious occasion.

To the Editor:

The utter failure of “Reaganomics” is part of President Ronald Reagan’s legacy.

This is relevant as we celebrate Reagan’s centennial in the fourth year of the Great Recession. Reagan’s unabashed pursuit of “supply-side” economics in the belief that cutting taxes for the rich would result in their investing it productively helped to transfer income upward. The rich got richer; the poor got poorer.

Reagan’s unabashed pursuit of deregulation helped to further the lack of restraint and responsibility on Wall Street and in corporate suites, leading us down the path to the economic situation we are in today.

Reagan’s unabashed assault on unions helped to weaken any voice for working people and contribute to a decline in wages for a generation. Workers turned to credit to sustain their standard of living, and the bill came due.

When Reagan took office, the top 1 percent of Americans took home 8 percent of all income. Today, the top 1 percent takes 23.5 percent of all income. Uncontrolled greed has left our nation weaker, and that is part of Reagan’s legacy.

Finally, Reagan’s unabashed assault on government helped weaken a belief in democracy. The government belongs to all citizens. We elect our government. We do not elect corporate CEOs. Yet the latter’s inordinate power in our nation today is indisputable.

In all fairness, Reagan was president for only eight years. Those who followed largely continued in his path, including Democrats. “Trickle-down” economics has had a 30-year run, and it has failed. It’s time to move on.

While Dave did throw in some good facts about class income and union breaking, he forgot the most important thing – the deficit skyrocketed under Reagan. Government spending increased! When Reagan said Government was the problem, he wasn’t kidding!

What most people have trouble with understanding is the dichotomy between what Reagan said and what he did. They were always the opposite. Reagan was a believer in the economic policies of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics: lower taxes, lower spending, deregulate, and end welfare systems. While Reagan never achieved Friedman’s policy, Clinton would. In theory, Reaganomics worked when there was a new revolution like the Internet and computers to drive the economy. But that is not very often. Domestic affairs were not Reagan’s strongest suits.  Those belonged to speeches and dealing with Communists.

Reagan gave three of the most memorable speeches by a President in my lifetime. The first was on the Challenger disaster. The others were at the Brandenburg Gate telling Gorbachev to “Tear Down this wall!” and the third speech was on the Strategic Space Defense Initiative. All three were filled with a toughness, an optimism, and a will to improve life for Americans. Here was Reagan’s finest shining moment:

His role in foreign affairs is mixed. The Iran Contra Scandal rocked the nation and many Americans thought he should resign. When terrorists killed over 200 Americans with a truck bomb in Lebanon, Reagan tucked tail and brought the rest home. In dealing with the Soviets on the a new Start Treaty, Reagan was in his element in playing the role as the leader of the American people. And you know, maybe that’s what Americans needed at the time. “Give the people what they want” is a phrase that goes back to the Roman Empire and Reagan did that in spades. Reagan seemed quite prophetic at times about communism:

“The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”

As a model for economics, Reagan was not one. For Reagan, we had a man whom Americans loved for his humor, toughness, and sense of right and wrong – his demeanor was more like ours than a politician’s. His philosophies on economics have never really panned out on their own. In fact, they have done more damage than good.

As someone who teaches history for a living, nothing quite tells the story of the Reagan dichotomy like a cartoon. And over the years there have been several which I use to teach what an enigma Reagan is. Nothing quite reaches kids like a cartoon. It teaches them to connect several items together and provides a basis for dialogue and debate about the merits of the point of view of the cartoonist.

By Kirk Anderson

By John Sherffius

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