Last Sunday, the nation celebrated Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday with lavish praise of the Gipper’s presidency and his rags to riches life story. Everyone’s view of the Great Communicators term in office depends on his or her political affiliations. Republicans praise him as conservatism’s monumental hero; many even use his name so much that Reagan should get royalties. Democrats bemoan his presidency as a step backward in history and most have spent the last week on the op-ed pages of newspapers debunking the Reagan myths of a low tax and the myth of how he never negotiated with dictators.Â
Â As for me, I have mixed feelings about that period of political history. I have strong disagreements with Reagan’s Manichean view of foreign policy that I think still drives the conservative paradigm to this day and his Reaganomics plan set the nation into a spiraling recession that was not fixed until he passed his own stimulus package. Despite my policy disagreements with the defiant conservative hero, there is no doubt that his personality lit up the room. His quick quips at press conferences and jovial style of joke telling often got him off the hook for not really answering questions.Â
I have come to realize that most commentators are not going gaga over Reagan’s policies, which are all up for debate, but his sense of optimism is his real legacy. For a child born in 1990, and most students who attend this fine college who were born in the Post-Reagan era, there is a sort of mystique about him that we do not find in presidents anymore. Reagan was the end of a generation that I call the “grandpa president.” The term implies a president who acted like your grandpa. He would sit you on his knee and tell you about the America he grew up in, maybe give you a smile and a piece of candy.Â
Â After Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, the U.S. started to elect presidents differently.Â The cult of the youthful persona seemed to be how we elected candidates. Gone were the days of picking old men with distinguished records and knew the Washington landscape. Lyndon Johnson, who was never technically elected president, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter all represent this phenomenon. By contrast, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama broke pattern of election by great old man stories. With the idealism of Reagan these latter figures used their youth appeal to attain the presidency.Â
Â I call this the “Justin Bieber Phenomenon,” with his new movie coming out it looks to be a fitting name for this theory, because our nation now votes by who is the youngest and cutest.Â At the same time, the nation has also used this new “youth” experience to vote with such immaturity. Serious scandals like Iran-Contra have been replaced by Monica Lewinsky. Serious policymaking has also been compromised by childish infighting about never cutting taxes and liberals balking at a GOP control over Washington as a corporatist takeover.Â Looking at politics this way makes one realize that we live a very different world.
Â Â Now I am not one of those who believe that silly fights or scandals did not break out during the Reagan administration or preceding ones. My point is that our focus on youth has led to ineffective governance and terrible discourse. We need a new old man who can rise above political fray to deliver compromising solutions. One of Reagan’s greatest qualities was his ability to negotiate with the other party, a quality that is sadly scorned today.Â
Â Bieber Fever might have infiltrated pop culture with mixed results, but its affects on politics have made the situation worse. I say happy birthday to the late president and yearn that we can learn lessons from his presidency.
To read more opinions by John Stang check out his blog called the “Independent Internationalist.” Â Also listen to his radio show on WRKE 100.3 FM, also online at wrke.org, about U.S. foreign policy and politics on Tuesdays from 1-3 pm est.