Reagan’s Fables

November 21st, 2007

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman has scratched the polish clear through the lacquer down to the grain of the Ronald Reagan myth. The Gipper as racist? Pragmatic win-the-white-vote Republican strategist? Half-bright victim of devious political handlers? All three…none of the above?

What roils here is this: the filmy gauze of history was just settling over Reagan’s tomb. Now Krugman has broken the seal, cracked it open, and dug up the casket. He wants it re-angled to sit on firmer ground.

Now’s the time. Presidential myths ossify and shift less and less over time. Consider the gap between today’s JFK mythology (“Camelot”, “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye”) against this diary entry by Chester Bowles, JFK’s Undersecretary of State, writing one month after the Bay of Pigs (quoted in David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest”):

“Anyone in public life who has strong convictions about the rights and wrongs of public morality, both domestic and international, has a very great advantage in terms of strain, since his instincts on what to do are clear and immediate. Lacking such a framework of moral conviction or sense of what is right and what is wrong, he is forced to lean almost entirely upon his mental processes; he adds up the pluses and minuses of any question and comes up with a conclusion. Under normal conditions, when he is not tired or frustrated, this pragmatic approach should successfully bring him out on the right side of the question.

“What worries me are the conclusions that such an individual may reach when he is tired, angry, frustrated, or emotionally affected. The Cuban fiasco demonstrates how far astray a man as brilliant and well-intentioned as Kennedy can go who lacks a basic moral reference point.”

“Ancient histories,” Voltaire wrote, “are but fables that have been agreed upon.” Reagan’s fable is not yet “ancient history.”