Monday, May 06, 2013

The Reagan Buckley Knew: WFB's memoir and its alternative take

I seem to be unable to read this title as anything other than “The Reagan I Knew.” The Gipper, in the wake of the Iran/Contra scandal, famously proclaimed that, though his heart told him he hadn't approved arms sales to terrorists, his head told him he had. What Buckley’s head and heart told him over the years, I could not say, but The Reagan I Knew describes a politician who might as well be wearing a cape—he’s a strident, confident voice who all but saved democracy for the future, and to Buckley, anything less than our complete adulation is insulting. Heart, one; Head, zip.

It’s a personal memoir, at its heart. You might find astute political analysis in Buckley’s dredged-up columns from the 60’s when he runs through gubernatorial contests—that’s an example of WFB at his best. There are transcripts of Reagan’s appearances on Firing Line, and I got a kick out of eavesdropping over Buckley’s and Reagan’s debate over the surrender of the Panama Canal, and their conversations over Nixon, Ford and Carter.

But the material revealing what these men were really thinking is what’s really engrossing, to say nothing of infuriating. Take, for example, “A Self-Interrogation on the Size of the Government,” where Buckley attempts to explain away Reagan’s campaign promises to shrink government, given the fact that Reagan’s deficit rose from $79 billion to $153 billion. Buckley argues to himself, “It is a factor in democratic government that pressure is brought to bear to finance, by federal spending, projects that commend themselves to…some of the voters”:

[The] political power of the legislature was greater than the political power of the executive [when federal expenditures rise]. When the forces that ask for more spending prevail, their success depends in some measure on their power to move against the traditional American ethos [of self-subsistence]. Reagan always believed that people should earn their own living, and that a country should too, and that a country that does so is entitled to its national budget.
Read between the lines: The president has to resist the legislature, which is influenced by its constituency. Therefore, federal success is measured by its ability to resist majority votes, which will force them to go out and get a paper route to pay for their health care. I guess Buckley doped out the majority opinion during one of his intercontinental yacht-jaunts across the ocean and decided considering them further in political affairs was unnecessary. (That’s not a fair observation, I know. But I don’t care.)

There’s more of this kind of sentiment, and you don’t have to look all that hard. Buckley, unsurprisingly, does not have much to say about the Iran/Contra scandal except to quote a letter he wrote Reagan in 1988, urging him to issue pardons to Poindexter, North, et al. What’s particularly telling is when he raises the possibility of Reagan having to take the stand and testify: “In order to do this, you will be instrumental in exposing to public view the mechanisms by which the United States protects its vital interests. What the Left in America will do with this is absolutely unthinkable.”

Translation: We can't tell Joe Citizen about our support for sonsofbitches, because George McGovern will use it to win elections. Plus, Noam Chomsky will also use it to erect Chairman Mao statues all over the White House lawn.

The conduit between the two men is, by today’s terms, disturbing and unsettling: Reagan taking his cues from National Review, all but publicly acknowledging that it was Buckley and his ilk that created him, and nobody bothers to say a fucking word? What would happen if President Obama made a pet columnist out of Eric Alterman at The Nation or something? I don’t know what the Buckley/Reagan relationship says about the media and politics in the 80’s, but I’d like to think we've come farther than that today.





1 comment:

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