Editorial: That Good Old Hot Air

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday June 08, 2004

“De mortuis nil nisi bonum.” That’s the old rule. About the dead, nothing but good should be said. In the ancient world, perhaps, it was followed. In the 19th century it was widely quoted and usually observed for a long time after death. In the last half of the 20th, it was followed for a shorter period of time, at least by the press, until historians got started on their revisions. In the speeded-up 21st, bloggers have rushed to judgment on Ronald Reagan even before the completion of the elaborate funereal observances which the First Actor planned long ago. Berkeley’s Best Blogger, Economics Professor Brad DeLong, weighed in on Saturday: “He tried hard, but by and large he didn't have the brainpower to think his way out of the boxes that his prior commitments and initial personnel choices handed him.” For including faint damns with his mild praise of the late president, DeLong was roundly excoriated by some of his correspondents. A Mr. or Ms. Zarkov reflected the opinion of several: “One would think you could put the criticisms aside on the day the man died. Nasty, nasty. I’m disgusted.”  

In Berkeley, where we recently voted to landmark the building on whose rooftop James Rector was shot, by troops ordered up by then-Gov. Reagan during the People’s Park demonstrations, most tears shed for Ronald Reagan will probably be of the crocodile variety. Brad DeLong accurately reflected the word on the street here. In local café chat, if Reagan is not damned he is at least marked for a long spell in Purgatory. My friend the recovering red diaper baby used to claim that she voted for Reagan once as a way of getting back at her upbringing, but she now denies it. The best that anyone says about him is that he was an amiable non-entity Peter-principled up to his level of incompetence. 

But really, that’s not too bad, is it? Especially if the stress is on the amiable. For comparison, consider George W. Bush, another non-entity, but not an amiable one. In fact, a pretty vicious non-entity, as it turns out. Compare their war records, for example. Ronald Reagan actually served in the military during World War II. He ended up in Hollywood making propaganda movies, but in later years he seems to have believed that he took part in the heroic actions the films depict—he wanted to serve. GWB, on the other hand, ducked out of his softball assignment in the National Guard for long periods at a stretch. Reagan seems to have believed in the voodoo economics (remember that term?) which his advisors told him would help the average citizen. Bush appears to be operating with a much more cynical “cut taxes, take the money and run” philosophy. Reagan espoused a number of quasi-Libertarian beliefs opposed to “big government.” Bush, on the other hand, is vastly extending the reach of the most dangerous elements of the national regime.  

You know things have come to a sorry pass in this nation when people in Berkeley begin to indulge in Reagan nostalgia. “His kids turned out okay,” they say, thinking of young Ron and Maureen, mensches both. “He really liked to take naps,” they say approvingly. And of course “he gave a great speech.” At least when Ronald Reagan said nothing, it sounded like something. Again, as contrasted with the current incumbent, who talks about everything as if it were nothing, when in fact it’s often something dreadful coming our way that he’s promoting in his speeches. Listening to Bush cynically duck questions at his infrequent press conferences, you begin to long for a breath of that good old Ronald Reagan hot air, reflecting his boundless if unfounded optimism about the America he genuinely loved, well if not too wisely. 


—Becky O’Malley