Why We Idolize Certain Presidents

Ronald ReaganJonathan Bernstein addresses an interesting question with his usual keen insight, Why Reagan Is King of the Conservative Heap. It follows off an article by Jonathan Ladd, Why Are Conservatives Obsessed with Reagan? He Coincided with Ideological Party Takeover Like No Democratic President Did. Ladd’s argument is clear enough from that long headline. But Bernstein argues that it is both simpler and more complex.

In the simplest sense, the conservatives don’t have anyone else. Bush the Younger certainly doesn’t qualify and his father was a one term president who raised taxes. Then you have Nixon, who was not only chased out of office, but who had fairly liberal domestic policies. Even if it weren’t for Watergate, he would at best be the Republican LBJ. Ford hardly exists as a president. Other than that, there is Eisenhower who was no kind of ideologue. Then you have to go back to Herbert Hoover. So Reagan is pretty much the only candidate that the Republicans have who they can worship.

Bill ClintonOn the complex side of the equation, Bernstein mentions two other factors that have helped Reagan: he has had an industry dedicated to improving his reputation and his decade after office living with dementia made it so no one wanted to attack him. And on the Democratic side, there are lots of notable people—most especially Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton. Republicans could, of course, go all the way back to Lincoln. But the reason they don’t is not so much that he died a century and a half ago. It is more that since the 1950s, the conservative movement has come under the grip of John C Calhoun. And even if they may think that slavery was bad, they are now deeply uncomfortable with the very idea of the Civil War. (That’s the nicest reading of where they stand.)

I tend to think that the reason Republicans worship Reagan is simpler still. When he left office, the economy was roaring along. Now this had absolutely nothing to do with his policies. But that’s the way it is. Liberals and conservatives alike now admire Clinton for the same reason. And I don’t see any more reason to give Clinton credit than I do Reagan. So the modern love of both presidents has more than anything to do with the American cult of success.

This is very interesting. Because I believe this, I’ve long thought that Obama was delusional. Carter’s time in office was actually rather good. He accomplished big things, including the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty. Yet the economy was doing poorly at the end of his term. This had nothing to do with him. Paul Volcker had raised interest rates at the Federal Reserve in order to fight inflation. So the reason that Carter is held in low opinion is the exact same reason that Reagan is held in high opinion. Obama has accomplished remarkable things in his term. And he’d like to accomplish more. But regardless of what he accomplishes, people are not going to worship him. Unless, of course, the economy suddenly starts roaring.

I think we all have to accept that we do not have good reasons for revering the presidents we do. Clinton and Reagan were just president at the right time. Carter and Bush the Younger were presidents at the wrong time. This isn’t to say that Bush the Younger wasn’t a horrible president. But if instead of the financial crisis, the economy had kept growing through 2008, Bush would likely be the object of much adulation among conservatives. There’s nothing surprising or meaningful here.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Why We Idolize Certain Presidents

  1. One small thing and two big things about the Reagan presidency.

    The small thing is that he fired a batch of government workers (air traffic controllers) for going on strike. That’s enough to convince any conservative his heart was in the right place.

    One big thing: he got shot by John Hinckley and survived. There had been so damned many sickening assassinations and so much other violence in the 1960’s and 1970’s that just having the man live after being gunned down made people feel happier about him.

    The other big thing: Most conservatives would give Reagan credit for bringing down the Soviet Union.True, the actual fall was on George HW Bush’s watch (and maybe without Gorbachov things would have gone somewhat differently), but Reagan had pushed up the defense budgets beyond what the USSR could match and clearly wanted the Commies to go out of existence — quite a chsnge after all those decades when we were told that detente was the best Americans could hope for.

    So, for all his flaws, Reagan did some stuff very well indeed, and will probably get some respect in the end from historians and political scientists
    as well as the raging nuts.

  2. @mike shupp – You are definitely right about the USSR. I wouldn’t give much credit to Reagan for that, but you are right that conservatives do. I tend not to give much credit to any figure heads. For example, it wasn’t Gorbachov’s liberal tendencies that caused changes in the Soviet Union. The changes in the country lead to Gorbachov gaining control.

    But ultimately, people are elected because of the economy and they are well remembered because of it. Remember Bush the Elder’s 90% approval rating after our bloody good Persian Gulf War? But the people don’t really remembers that.

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