Friday, July 21, 2006

Roosevelt, Reagan, Rushmore

Huffington Post
Brent Budowsky
Roosevelt, Reagan, Rushmore

I never agreed with Mr. Fukiyama about "the end of history" but I do worry that we live in an age that represents the end of the heroic leader, at least until the next great President, long overdue, emerges.

In 2004 I published an essay for the National Review online entitled: "Roosevelt, Reagan, Rushmore: A Democrat Crosses the Great Divide".
I state my bias at the outset: Democratic leaders today do not hold a candle to Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy, and Republican leaders do not hold a candle to Ronald Reagan. Great President's emerge in our history about every twenty years or so; let us hope 2008 moves the nation back on schedule.

While Franklin Roosevelt is widely seen as a genuinely great President, in my view he remains underestimated even with that high praise. This man who grew up wealthy and began a political career characterized by caution, went through the torment of polio, and in his early days at Warm Springs, learned what it was like to be called "a cripple" and even excluded from common dining rooms alongside his fellow patients, because of fear that what they had was contagious.

Out of this was forged a profoundly powerful character, compassion, wisdom and judgment that empowered this spectacularly great leader to lead our country out of the Depression and into the Second World War. He was not an ideologue, he was an experimenter, taking what failed, and discarding it, taking what worked, and building on it.

If only George Bush and Democratic leaders had taken from Roosevelt and learned from experience, and knew, as Roosevelt knew, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. How tragic to have a Republican President fomenting fear for partisanship, and Democratic Leaders, immobilized by their fear of speaking out with conviction.

While historians are understandably divided about Reagan, my view is that he does indeed deserve to be ranked as a truly great President. During much of Reagan's term, I worked at the epicenter of the Loyal Opposition, with the Democratic Leadership in the Congress. For certain: there are many things then, and now, that I vehemently disagree with, that Reagan did.

But he has one monumental achievement that will be measured in historical greatness for centuries: his willingness to combine the military and diplomatic together, and, when the moment of truth came, to be magnamimous and bold with Gorbachev resulting in historic agreements that dramatically reduced the danger of world extinction from thermonuclear war and paved the way to ending and winning the Cold War.

A thousand years from now, that achievement will be seen as an inflection point for humanity.

To be fair: American history from FDR to G.H.W. Bush involved a long continuum of American President, some great, some average, some poor, all of whom played with role in the triumph of the Cold War. In my view both JFK and Eisenhower remain very underestimated today, historically.

And: Mikhail Gorbachev is a gigantic historic figure who deserves far more credit that he is given today; Margaret Thatcher, who said "we can do business" with Gorbachev; and members of the Loyal Opposition, particularly Tip O'Neill, who had an important respectful relationship with Reagan, among many others made major contributions.

But when the hour came, Reagan did, what only Reagan could do.

Particularly progressives who might be skeptical could read the highly important book about Reagan by historian Paul Lettow, about Reagan's question for nuclear disarmament. Reagan believed in nuclear disarmament throughout his life, from his liberal days to his conservative climax. He did not look for opportunities to launch preemptive wars. There was the contra war, which I did not agree with, and Grenada, which our Lady of the Sacred Hearts volleyball team could have invaded. But nothing like the war fever stirred to a boil by the ideologues of Bush.

President Bush not only has little in common with Reagan's greatest assets, in the key regards, he is the exact opposite, looking unwise wars to fight, refusing for six years to take diplomacy seriously and, where Reagan listened carefully to commanders, our incumbent at key moments has treated their advice with contempt.

Lettow chronicles Reagan's drive for nuclear disarmament, traces how he combined hard line rhetoric and strong defense with genuine and creative diplomacy with Gorbachev.

Similarly, Richard Reeves in his excellent book dramatizes Reagan's having the power of imagination, driving for disarmament as well as democracy in his own way. We can fault Reagan for many things; but his ultimate achievement was monumental and its impact was lasting, and while there is much credit to be shared, both Roosevelt and Reagan, in far different ways, were Indispensable Americans.

Contrary to the convenient conservative and neoconservative revisionism, when Reagan was acheiving his greatest legacies, many on the right were demonizing and demeaning even Reagan. George Will, Richard Perle, Jesse Helms and a long list compared Reagan with Gorbachev to Chamberlain with Hitler at Munich, and Pearl Harbor 2.

Finally for now, Nancy Reagan deserves profound gratitude for steering Ronald Reagan towards greatness, towards lasting legacies of arms control and world peace through agreements with Gorbachev that only Reagan had both the political capital and vision to reach. Various Presidents had one or the other: Reagan had both, and when the moment came, he delivered.

So: I hope folks will glance at my National Review essay, and think about where we have gone wrong today, with leaders who lack the substance and stature of Roosevelt and Reagan. America is overdue for the next great President. Here's hoping.