Sunday 6 February 2011
Little Big Man
Today happens to be the hundredth anniversary of one of the outstanding political figures of American history, arguably the greatest president of the previous century – Ronald Reagan, born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois.
As a political operator my preference is for Richard Nixon, the Cesare Borgia of the While House. But there is no denying that, despite his many achievements, he was one of the most divisive figures ever to attain senior office. Reagan may not have had the intellect or the guile of Nixon, but he was the man for the times, a decent, uncomplicated man, one who helped cure the wounds left over from Watergate and Vietnam.
What a contrast he is compared with the present incumbent of the White House. He came to office in 1981 with none of the political advantages of Barack Obama. The Democrats controlled the House and the Republicans had the slimmest of majorities in the Senate. The economy was in bad shape, the worst since the 1930s, with an unemployment rate of 7% and inflation running in to double figures. In the international sphere the Soviet Union was looking more dangerous than it had for some time past. Things could not really get much worse.
Now fast forward to 1989, two terms completed. The economy was buoyant and communism, the whole of the Evil Empire, in a state of collapse. Retiring to Bel Air, Reagan left behind him an approval rating of 64%, the highest of any departing president since FDR.
There is so much to account for this, simple things going beyond success in foreign and domestic policies. He had the kind of charisma and charm that is so obviously beyond Obama, little more than a deflating gas bag, issuing windy rhetoric and nothing besides. Reagan had a quality of sincerity and moral decency, just the thing that America needed after the nadir of the presidency in the aftermath of Watergate, followed by the fumbling incompetence of the Carter years. He gave the country a new sense of direction, a renewed belief in itself. Nothing was impossible, he said; ordinary people can achieve so much by themselves if only government gets out of the way, the only message one wants to hear from a politician; the only message I ever want to hear.
Folksy, straight-talking, down to earth, he was everyman, the little guy who became a giant, for once proving that the American dream is not always an illusion. A natural actor, his greatest role was as the 40th President of the United States, a performance for which he deserved an Oscar.