With the exception of Runner's World magazine, everything I've read recently has either attempted to place Ronald Reagan in history or has pretentiously informed him that history -- all of it -- will be judging him from here on out. Where it has been all this time is never explained.
Some writers say that Reagan is already assured of his place in history; others are just as sure that history is still making up its mind. But most agree that unless Reagan concludes an arms control agreement, history will judge him severely. It just might ignore him totally.
That kind of history is not an objective reading of the past, but an assessment. It's a judgment made by certain kinds of people -- the very people who are, by and large, critics of Ronald Reagan. I generalize, of course, since here are some intellectuals, academics and journalists who are Reagan fans, but it's safe to say that if the last election had been limited to them, Walter Mondale would have won -- and Adlai Stevenson would have come in second on a write-in.
We are talking of people (and I am one) for whom Reagan is something of a mystery. These people appreciate his popularity, his warmth, his personality, his charisma and a voice as soothing as a nighttime rubdown with Vicks, but we would like him a lot more if he occasionally read a book, acknowledged that a balanced budget amendment is a chimera and could be cynical about anything other than Soviet promises. So having lost two elections to Reagan, having been rebuffed by the American electorate, Reagan's severest critics now withhold the only thing they have left -- the judgment of history. Even for intellectuals, this is epic hubris.
What's interesting is that the tactic has worked -- or at least it seems to have. Reagan, we are told, is now concerned about his place in history, and, for this reason, very much wants an arms control agreement of some sort with the Soviet Union. Arms control, therefore, will be the first order of business.
There is irony aplenty here. In the first place, all the arguments for arms control that are present now were present in the first term too. If those arguments were no good then, why should they be good now? Despite what you are being told, the balance of power or terror has not changed significantly. What's changed is the so-called imperative of history. But that's nonsense. History will hardly swoon at an arms control agreement that's violated, that's flawed, that leads to war or does little to impede it. History is not a total jerk, although it does, to be sure, have a weakness for even ineffective peace- makers -- Woodrow Wilson, for instance.
It just so happens that I am one of those who think Reagan has failed miserably at arms control -- and history will say so. But history, my history, will not be a particular fan of Reagan's anyway. My history notes respectfully that all of the recent presidents made some headway on arms control and, still, greatness eluded them. One was a scoundrel, two were incompetents, one was downright corrupt and one was killed before any judgment could be made.
In my book, history bestows greatness on presidents who meet the challenge of great crisis -- war, depression or even, as with FDR, a combination of the two. Greatness without crisis is like entrepreneurial skill in Albania: there's no way to show it.
My history has already made its judgment on Reagan. But if I and others like me are wrong, then Reagan's greatness surely reposes in his instincts and his lack of pretension. Reagan was formidable for one term because he disdained the sort of high-church history that is now beckoning him -- because, in the tired words of his tiresome friend what's-his-name, he did it his way. He wanted to shape history, not to have it shape him. Even a critic of the president hopes he realizes the difference.
It's like the girl in the movies. The only way to court history is to ignore it. If you're any good, it will come to you.