Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 7, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

THE LUCK OF THE GIPPER....It's hard to avoid blogging about Ronald Reagan this week, so I guess I'll just give in and do it.

I have to admit that I flip back and forth on Reagan a lot. On the one hand, I can read something like this and be instantly reminded of everything I hated about him welfare queens, AIDS, Iran-contra, James Watt, El Salvador, Ed Meese, his confusion of movies with reality, and on and on. On the other hand, sometimes those things recede in my memory and I also remember his sunny optimism, his eventual willingness to negotiate with the Soviets, the fact that he never really made good on his social conservatism, his final victory against communism, and, as my mother put it, the fact that "we came out the other end OK after all."

But there's another aspect of Reagan that doesn't get much attention: he was extraordinarily lucky. I don't especially intend to demean his accomplishments by saying this, since it's surely true that people often make their own luck, but nonetheless: Reagan was a very lucky guy. Here are some examples:

  1. The Iranians decided to let the hostages go on the precise day of Reagan's inauguration. There are dark theories that this was prearranged by Reagan's people during the campaign, and equally suspect theories that it was because the Iranians were deathly afraid to deal with Reagan the gunslinger. More likely, the hostages had accomplished their purpose and the Iranians just didn't want to risk having to reopen lengthy negotiations with a new administration.

    But whatever the case, the timing was fortuitious. Not only did Reagan not have to deal with the hostages, but his first days in office coincided with a gigantic national celebration over their return. It really did seem like a new era.

  2. One of Reagan's signature early moments came when he fired the air traffic controllers who had gone on strike in August 1981. He won that battle and cemented his reputation as a firm leader who wouldn't allow himself to be extorted by a bunch of hooligans.

    But what if a couple of 747s had collided a week after he broke the strike? What would his legacy have been then?

  3. The 1981 recession ended just in the nick of time, didn't it? One more year and we'd be writing about President Mondale's legacy right about now.

  4. Reagan eventually agreed to arms reductions with the Soviet Union, but that became possible only when two Soviet leaders in succession died after little more than a year in office and the reforming Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.

    It's obviously to Reagan's credit that he seized the opportunity to work with Gorbachev, but he was still lucky to get the chance. If Konstantin Chernenko had remained in power for a few more years, that chance probably never would have come.

  5. It's easy to forget now, but in 1987 the folks around Reagan were genuinely afraid that the Iran-contra scandal might lead to his impeachment. In the end, though, no smoking gun was found, John Poindexter took the ultimate fall, and the entire affair slowly drifted into the haze of history.

    But no one seriously believes that Reagan was entirely unaware of either the deal to trade arms for hostages or of the deal to covertly supply the contras with weapons. All it would have taken was the leak of one unambiguous memo and Reagan would have been toast. It was a lucky break that no such memo ever became public.

  6. And finally there's the biggest piece of luck of all: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, just a few months after Reagan left office. This is surely the iconic emblem of Reagan's victory over communism, and the timing is etched indelibly in our national consciousness.

    But regardless of how you feel about Reagan's contribution to toppling the Soviet Union, it was only coincidence that the Wall fell when it did. It could just as easily have fallen, say, in 1993 when Bill Clinton was president. If it had, would it still be remembered as Reagan's victory? Fairly or not, there's little doubt that the passing of a few years would have made an enormous difference in the public mind.

And there's one more thing: Reagan was even lucky in choosing his predecessor well. It's not just that it was easy to look good compared to Jimmy Carter, it's that Carter laid an awful lot of the groundwork for Reagan's accomplishments. For all the contempt that conservatives shower on him today, the fact is that it was Carter who first used human rights as a serious cudgel to bash the Soviet Union; it was Carter who began the deregulation movement; it was Carter who first approved the secret war in Afghanistan; it was Carter who formed a "Management Strike Contingency Force" scabs to prepare for the air traffic controller strike; and it was Carter who appointed inflation hawk Paul Volcker to the Fed someone who surely had far more to do with fixing the ailing economy than Reagan himself did.

So what to say? It's true that every president has a mix of good and bad luck. And it's true that there are different kinds of luck: in the case of the air traffic controller strike Reagan rolled the dice and won, while in the case of Gorbachev he was presented with a lucky opportunity and had the wit to take advantage of it. Making the best of your chances is sometimes the truest mark of a winner.

But still: Ronald Reagan was an exceptionally lucky man during his eight years in the White House. We haven't seen its equal since JFK won his bet with Khrushchev and emerged into history as a steely eyed cold warrior instead of the man who started World War III.

Kevin Drum 7:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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