Ronald Reagan and “Are we doomed?”

American exceptionalism?

9-28-1982 President Reagan speaking at the podium at his 13th Press Conference in the East Room

Kelly Sedinger had two somewhat related questions.

I’ve come to believe very strongly that the election of Ronald Reagan is the inflection point whereupon everything went in the wrong direction. Thoughts?

Ronald Reagan is one of the most beloved Presidents ever. He regularly appears in the Top 10 lists of best Presidents.

This one, e.g., quotes a scholar who wrote about the Gipper “winning the Cold War, restoring American economic prosperity rooted in Judeo-Christian values, and optimism about America’s exceptionalism… He understood a) what the Soviet threat was about, b) what we needed to do to defeat it, and he left Bill Clinton a very strong hand. In many ways, we’ve been living off borrowed military capital of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, when he inherited a military in disarray.”


Yet, I think Kelly is mostly right. Every economic survey I’ve seen has shown that the disparity in the pay ratio between CEOs and employees began in earnest during his administration, thanks to tax cuts for the rich. The cliche that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is largely true.

These measures also added to the debt. As a percentage, the debt went up more under Reagan than any other 20th or 21st-century President save for the war Presidents Wilson and FDR, and the latter, who served over three terms, was also dealing with the Great Depression.

The New York Times review of The New Jim Crow, which I quoted : “The book marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America.”

Reagan’s response to the AIDS epidemic before 1987 was notoriously awful.

30  March 1981

I’ve long believed that the success of Ronald Reagan in getting his legislative agenda passed in 1981 was partly due to surviving an assassination attempt. And with humor, no less: “Honey, I forgot to duck,” cribbed from boxer Jack Dempsey’s line to his wife the night he was beaten by Gene Tunney in 1926.

The Guardian article concurs. “Such displays of wit and courage under fire helped humanise Reagan and deliver a political boost that shaped his presidency. ‘His personal style of leadership endeared him to people on both sides of the aisle not only in Congress, but around the country… “I think the president and his team were smart enough to realise that here was an opportunity for his brand to demonstrate leadership and put forth ideas that he always believed in but now would perhaps have a greater chance of enacting because of his popularity.'”

During a Presidential debate in 1984, when asked if, at 73, he was too old to be President. Reagan replied, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Walter Mondale, his Democratic opponent, laughed.


As much as I despised his policies, I understood his appeal. He was an actor, after all, and could call on a line in the script to respond to many situations.

On Quora, a guy named Jonathan Kurtzman learned from Reagan’s staff “how he prepared his speeches… He’d switch words to fit his voice, but then the secret was that he’d read the speech with a pencil and he’d underline each phrase so the words fit his natural breath, his natural cadence, and the emphasis he wanted. An old professional acting trick. 

At the time, I wished he were a king with no Constitutional responsibilities at the time. He could go out and give those rah-rah speeches.

Reagan’s terms showed one inflection point. But at least he was still communicating regularly with House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

We fell off the cliff after 1994 and sleazy Newt Gingrich’s Contract On America. Oops, it was the Contract WITH America. It is an easy mistake for me to make. It’s strange, too, because President Bill Clinton was largely a fiscal conservative.

On balance

Scale of 1-10, with 1 being “We are doomed” and 10 being “We’ll get through this and we’ll be better for it”, how do you feel about America right now?

I’ll give us a 2. The greatest issue is climate change, which will screw up everything from food supply to transportation to the inability of homeowners to get affordable insurance for their properties.

The US is becoming a ‘developing country’ on global rankings that measure democracy and inequality.   U.S. Education Rankings Are Falling Behind the Rest of the World. We’re not among the 10 Countries With the Best Public Health Systems. Or the top 20.   There’s so much more that I’d become depressed if I delved any further.

Yakkity yak

Meanwhile, listening to many of the 2024 Republican candidates who waffle about whether the actions of djt before and after the 2020 election were illegal and immoral is very disheartening. And watching tainted dudes like Gym Jordan and Matt Gaetz grilling Attorney General Merritt Garland would have been laughable if it weren’t so tragic.

You don’t need me to note that the information Americans take in is so fractured that we often operate in different realities. More worrisome, “death threats have become rampant as MAGA culture twists norms and makes once-marginal forms of violence mainstream.”

So why 2 instead of 1? Irrational optimism? Believing that there are enough people who believe in the American promise to turn things around? Yeah, probably. When one is a person of faith, you hope. Maybe it’s like rooting for the Yankees, Red Sox, or Mets, all of whom sucked in 2023. Maybe next year. Or not.

I’ll address all of Kelly’s other queries soon.

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