Give Reagan to the Right

11 Feb

Ring-wing conservatives in America have a major problem. They stand with hands on hearts, tears in eyes, and proudly proclaim their patriotism. Yet, there is no great president in U.S. history that they can call their own.

Look at the major presidents, the significant ones who remain in the public mind as substantial characters of the past: even if the details are a bit murky in most people’s minds, not one of the top five U.S. presidents can be considered a conservative in the mold of today’s Republican party. If anything, the Big Five great presidents were all on the progressive edge of their era and, arguably, ours; something even most Democrats these days can’t claim.


George Washington led an army in revolution against his king. He then took the helm of a new republic and willingly stepped down from power. He warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements in his Farewell Address. And while he supported the institution throughout his life, he did the right thing by freeing his slaves upon his wife’s death. This was not a man who wasted his time dreaming about an idyl of some false bygone years. He  was a true believer in the primacy of progress.

The next great president by consensus would be Thomas Jefferson. The author of the Declaration of Independence. A voice for the yeoman farmer. An intellectual. A Deist. Not a conservative idol, by any means.

Following Jefferson in the public mind would be Abraham Lincoln. Freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. Defeated the South, something the racist wing of the Republican party denies to this day. While perhaps the greatest Republican ever, he’s not one that its contemporary membership will embrace in a big way because it would kill its aggrieved white male, Southern appeal.

Oddly, the next first-rate White House denizen, Theodore Roosevelt, is another Republican who also fails the contemporary GOP sniff test. The rabidly libertarian wing of the Republican party hates TR for his famous trust-busting and the establishment of the National Parks. Transgressions all. Regulating business is an affront to their Ayn Rand sensibilities; while Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the rest of the magnificent jewels among our National Parks are not worth the price of another government agency in their simple minds. Nope. He won’t do at all. Too progressive.

Like it or not, and conservatives don’t, the next great president on anyone’s list would be TR’s distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Can you imagine America without Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Security and Exchange Commission, and so much more? Fringe Republicans would like to, of course, but no one else would. And can you imagine how World War II would have gone if either Wendell Wilkie or Thomas Dewey, who ran against FDR in 1940 and 1944, respectively, had been commander in chief? You’d probably be speaking either German or Japanese, depending on which coast you lived on.

After FDR, I’d argue no one matches up to the Big Five. Some might vote for Truman or Kennedy, and an argument can be made for both, but I don’t think they fully rise to the Big Five level. Yet, it’s interesting to note that even these two men would be labeled as progressives in their day and ours.

Think about it: not a single conservative president ranks among the great ones. Americans revere presidents who have led the nation forward, not backward. That must really rankle conservative Republicans, who want to drag the nation back to some phantasmagoric past that somehow has escaped the history books. Even should a GOP conservative of today ascend to the Oval office, his very principles are likely to condemn him to the middling and tainted ranks of Hayes, Harrison, Harding, Nixon, and (pick your) Bush.

So the right wing is desperate for Reagan to be seen as one of the greats. They have no one else who comes close. And, to be honest, Reagan barely achieves the stature or competence of Truman or Kennedy. During the centennial of his birth his obvious weaknesses have been jumped on by mean-spirited progressives who see Reagan as a failure or as someone they mock as anathema to the current GOP Weltanshauung.

Progressives should let go of their antipathy to Reagan. Although a telegenic, while mediocre president, he was, after all, a pragmatic one, which is a lesson in itself. His massive tax increase deal with Congress saved Social Security in its day, something liberals need to give him credit for accomplishing. Yes, he was wrong in many ways, most strikingly in his support of apartheid. Yet, so was Jefferson, the great liberal icon, who wrote stirringly about freedom while keeping and selling slaves to support his opulent lifestyle.

Every great president has feet of clay. So, why not let the right wing have their flawed man? Is there room for a sixth chair around the table of the nation’s truly great presidents? I think so. The Big Five, like true progressives, were gracious people who would enjoy the company.


One Response to “Give Reagan to the Right”


  1. Tweets that mention Give Reagan to the Right « Croisan Views -- - February 13, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Everett Hall, fullofbalogna. fullofbalogna said: “@Croisan: @RonSupportsYou @fullofbalogna FYI: He wasnt as great as some say, but he was darn likable” Nice article! […]

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