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Tributes to Ronald Reagan overlook a large down side of his legacy

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Friday, 18 June 2004

Much of the commentary on Ronald Reagan since his death has emphasised his optimism and the renewed sense of belief he gave to America. These legacy boosters write as though Reagan's presidency cast Californian sunshine all the way across America in the 1980s. For such supporters, Reagan revitalised the nation, bringing about the new "Morning in America" promised by his 1984 election campaign.

My memories from the 1980s, however, are of a frightening politician who cast a black cloud over my political youth. As a political science student, I was perplexed by Reagan's electoral success and troubled by his foreign policies.

For many students who closely followed American and British politics just as I did, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were the enemies who we blamed for the greed of the age. Reagan's America was one of flag-waving, white-picket fences, Jerry Falwell, Rambo, Alex P. Keaton and Huey Lewis and the News. It ushered in the age of the yuppie, pastel shirts and boat shoes.


The "alternative" scene to this Reaganite culture and politics was often dour and far less hopeful than the fabled campus life of the baby-boomers. Gone was the Day-Glo counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and it was replaced, among my Reagan-bashing friends, by the depressive combination of black on black fashion, gothic bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain and Mike Leigh films. This was a youth culture with suicidal tendencies totally disenchanted by a Golden Oldies American President.

My university lecturers from America had all worked for Robert Kennedy and had left in disgust after his assassination. At least they had smelt political idealism. The new Goth and punk culture, to which I was drawn, was deeply pessimistic. Politically, this reflected a view that the victories of a hokey actor like Reagan signalled the end of politics and the dominance of public relations; with Reagan the master of the sound-bite and the not-so-wise-crack. This was a style that he had crafted not just as a B-grade actor, but also as a company spokesperson for General Electric.

And then there was "Reaganomics", with its call for smaller government, deregulation, lower taxes and welfare cuts. For me, Reaganomics was more than just tight-fisted economics; it represented a bourgeoning new selfishness among the more wealthy members of society. The excesses of this culture of narcissism were best captured by Oliver Stone in Wall Street, with his lament against rampant greed, and by P. J. O'Rourke in Republican Party Reptile, with his celebration of being young and self-centred. Wall Street is well remembered for the line uttered by Michael Douglas: "greed is good". For my part, I can't seem to forget the title of an essay in O'Rourke's book which says it all: "How to drive fast on drugs while getting your wing-wang squeezed and not spill your drink."

The 1980s saw America once again release the capitalist brute of the 19th century and the roaring 1920s, with Roosevelt's New Deal and Johnson's "war on poverty" under conservative attack. Reagan famously called poverty the victor in the "war on poverty", while arguing that less government assistance to the poor was the best solution.

But wasn't Reagan a Christian, you might ask? And what did his conservative Christian supporters make of the hedonistic promotion of wealth? Being a Christian in America in the 1980s increasingly meant you believed in personal responsibility and that charity began and ended at home. Reagan was famous for rallying these conservative Christian voters behind him and his legacy is intertwined with the emergence of evangelical Christians as a major force in American electoral politics.

Reagan's Christianity saw him advocate a return to "traditional American values". In the domain of foreign affairs, Reagan also made a number of utterances about how the arms race could lead to Armageddon - statements that added to my own fear and loathing of the man.


It has often been asked: how could Ronnie appeal both to culturally conservative Southern born-again Christians and to young Wall Street stockbrokers? For the wealthy, Reagan delivered on his promised tax cuts. Reagan's attempts to legislate moral reform were famously more difficult with his moral rhetoric often not converted into policy because of a reluctant US Congress and Supreme Court. As a result, Reagan was unable to oversee the outlawing of abortion in America, which he once described as the greatest disappointment of his presidency.

Looking back on Reagan two decades later from my position now as a lecturer in American politics, there are three questions that still fascinate me. First, how bright was Reagan? Second, was he crucial to ending the Cold War? And third, what is his political legacy in America?

Like the current US president, Reagan said some rather stupid things. On the environment: "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do." On South Africa in 1985: "They have eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country." And on returning from Latin America in 1982: "Well, I learned a lot. You'd be surprised. They're all individual countries." Like George W. Bush, Reagan wasn't a details man. However, he had strong opinions, which he voiced in numerous radio speeches in the 1970s, delivered rather in the style of our own John Laws.

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This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 12 June 2004.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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