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Keep Reagan's Record in Balance

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By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, June 10, 2004

The good that Ronald Reagan did is not being buried with his bones tomorrow, as Shakespeare's Mark Antony predicted of Caesar. Reagan's good is being disinterred and magnified. It is being raised to new and unrealistic heights that will live on, and hang heavily over his successors, in public expectations.

This is not to begrudge the 40th president the thunderous applause that has come from politicians, journalists, historians and citizens to mark Reagan's final bow. Ill should rarely be spoken of the dead. But it is puzzling how these assessments of Reagan's accomplishments have improved so dramatically and uniformly in the 16 years since he left office.

Perhaps this is how contemporary history is made or, in the electronic era, mismade and distorted. Reagan's growing reputation as the great victor in the Cold War who made Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall depends on looking at Reagan and his times through the light cast by subsequent events.

The craving by Americans for uncluttered heroism -- for what is seen in retrospect as the order and clarity of the Cold War -- also powers this yearning for a near-mythical transformation of Reagan's death into a moment to sweep aside the dread and anguish of the wars in Iraq and against al Qaeda.

Yes, winners always write the history. But it is dangerously easy today to make the leap from that news footage of Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to concluding that he came to office with a master plan to make victory in the Cold War inevitable. As one television executive said to me not long ago, "Today history is what we say it is."

To one who covered many of the key international events of that day, Reagan seemed in fact to come late to a realistic view of the Soviet Union and the world, and -- like most presidents -- to have improvised furiously and not always successfully in foreign affairs.

It is also easy in today's elegiac mood to forget how unpopular Reagan was abroad for most of his presidency, even among his peers. France's Francois Mitterrand once sputtered in rage at me when I asked about his ideological conflicts with Reagan over Soviet policies. Kremlin officials expressed private delight at Reagan's election because they would be able to "roll him."

That is no skin off Reagan's record. He was more right about the evil and the fate of Soviet imperialism than Mitterrand, Gorbachev and most other leaders of the day. He was far from the amiable dunce portrayed by his knee-jerk critics.

But the opposition that Reagan stirred should not be airbrushed out of the final photograph of his times. Nor can we ignore the fact that the analysis and policies that brought some breakthroughs with Moscow originated more with George Shultz at the State Department than at Reagan's White House.

The Wall collapsed a year after Reagan's successor had been chosen and had started to alter policies toward Moscow. That collapse was due more to the struggle in the 1980s of the citizens of Poland, Hungary, East Germany and other satellite nations than to new actions by Washington. Nor should we minimize the contribution that a half-century of common dedication by U.S. and West European citizens and their military forces made to the final collapse of the Soviet empire.

There were important costs that came with Reagan's undeniable successes. His confrontational style used in getting much-needed Pershing 2 missiles deployed in Europe helped prematurely end the career of West Germany's highly competent chancellor, Helmut Schmidt.

U.S. support extended to guerrillas to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan has blown back in the form of al Qaeda and extreme instability in Central Asia. U.S. help to Saddam Hussein in Iraq also boomeranged. Iran-contra was not as great an aberration at the Reagan White House as it is often painted today.

The commentariat has made many of the right points about Reagan's uplifting personality and all the good and the fascinating that will live after him. Even if he was not a great president, he lived a great life from which we can all learn.

But if we airbrush and prettify history for the small screen and the front page, and ultimately for the books to come, we will not learn the most important lessons about mistakes that can be avoided. Let Reagan be Reagan, warts and all, for all time now.

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