The two modern ex-presidents with the most mystique both marked milestones
January was the 50th anniversary of President John Kennedys inauguration. And February would have been Ronald Reagans 100th birthday. Ironically, there were marked similarities between the dashing young liberal from Massachusetts and the dashing old conservative from California.
There is little debate that Kennedy was a different kind of president than what the country had been used to prior to 1960. Young, attractive, vibrant and with an even younger, beautiful wife he made everyone feel a little more optimistic about the future.
We liked him and wanted him to succeed.
He was strong during the Cuban missile crisis, forcing the Soviets to remove offensive missiles with nuclear capabilities from Cuba. It was a time of tension far beyond anything were now experiencing the worlds two atomic super powers in a face-to-face showdown that could have ended in a nuclear holocaust. (It was serious enough that it was the first time I remember our house having television on during dinner. Regrettably, the second time was only a couple years later when we followed, with horror, the news of Kennedys murder in Dallas.)
Kennedy also inspired us to reach the moon and provided the impetus that led to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
But he badly bungled the Bay of Pigs invasion, a horribly amateur operation
designed to overthrow Fidel Castro. Our
invaders were all either captured or killed and the fiasco set the groundwork for what has become a half-century long policy of foolishness toward Cuba.
Worse, he started the escalations of our role in Vietnam. The early 60s were our best chance to gracefully and honorably bow out of Southeast Asia and save several hundred billion dollars and more than 50,000 lives. Alas, Kennedy bought into the now
discredited domino theory that held if South Vietnam fell, all of Southeast Asia would become Communist, falling like so many dominoes.
We also learned, after the fact, that Kennedy was a world-class philanderer and, far from being vigorous and active, had a crippling back injury he received in World War II and suffered from a debilitating case of Graves disease.
To be fair, Kennedy had only 1,000 days of presidency, not enough time to be either fully successful or a failure. That we still talk of Camelot and the Kennedy presidency is testament to his friends and family and their ability to perpetuate the myth and mystique. And we cling to an unrealistic image because, at least in part, he was taken from us so harshly and suddenly.
Ronald Reagan, of course, had eight full years to enact his vision for America.
As effective as the Kennedy clan and their friends have been in keeping the Kennedy aura alive and well, Reagans supporters have been better. Theyre still trying to make sure there is some kind of Reagan monument in every county in the country. Some havent given up on their notion that Reagan deserves a place on Mount
Rushmore. Never mind that theres no room.
Reagan, much like Kennedy, brought hope and optimism to the country. In
Reagans case, that was especially important to a country that had been battered for nearly a decade. Wed gone through
Watergate, the Iranian hostage mess was still in play, and we had been mired in an economy with double-digit inflation and brutal interest rates. Gas prices skyrocketed and the OPEC nations decided it would be fun to punish us by exporting less so we had long, long lines at the gas pumps and even some gas rationing. Things were not so good.
Then along comes
Ronald Reagan, and his exquisite campaign commercials, telling us it was
morning in America.
This was to be a new brand of conservative leadership that would restore our military, reduce the size of the government, lower taxes and still be tough on the Soviet Union. Some of his supporters still talk as if he actually did all those things.
President Reagan did, in fact, become a very tough adversary for the Soviets. He wasnt much of a negotiator but his anti-Soviet rhetoric was dynamic. His speech in Berlin, demanding that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev tear down this wall was a classic. And he was willing to spend and spend and spend on the military, including the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as the Star Wars missile defense system. Gorbachev has said
publicly it was Reagans willingness to spend freely on the military that ultimately did them in. They simply could not keep pace given the moribund reality of their perpetually failing Socialist economy.
Aside from that, Reagan wasnt much of a conservative at all.
Under Reagan, our annual deficits increased, our national debt tripled and the federal government grew even more bloated in both size and cost. Supply side economics was a bust and after an initial tax cut, Reagan raised taxes an astonishing 11 times. Thats an unbelievably bad record for a conservative icon and exactly the kind of big taxes, big spending and big government those who now call themselves conservatives so despise.
Then there was the Iran/Contra mess, an illegal and farcical diversion of funds and weapons to the Nicaraguan contras that did not help us with Iran, did not lead to the immediate defeat of the sandanistas and consumed much of Reagans second term.
But never mind their failings and flaws. We liked John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan and it seemed they liked us. They made us feel better about our country and become more optimistic about our future. Their
acolytes make sure we remember.
We honor them now for what they symbolized more than for what they actually accomplished, and thats all right. Hope,
despite what some current politicians think, is a good thing and we fondly remember those leaders who bring it to us.