Christopher Hitchens on “the stupidity of Ronald Reagan”

America has been reduced to a giant gush-a-thon as everyone who ever knew Ronald Reagan is wheeled out to recall some nostalgic anecdote about the great prevaricator. The footage seems endless. Yesterday Fox News viewers were treated with a helicopter view of the hearse driving up to the Reagan mansion to pick up the corpse as though it were stunning breaking news, like the OJ Bronco ride. Hugh Sidey and George Will and Mike Wallace and Walter Cronkite are pulled out of the closet, the mothballs dusted off, as they recall one tedious story after another that no one wants to hear about. At times, the “coverage” is so stultifyingly dull that even the little flies on the wall tuck in their wings and go to sleep.

Reagan was likeable. He had a folksy charm — but he was first and foremost an actor. What lay beneath was far less delightful. His powers of oratory were real. I still tremble a bit when I hear him say, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It was one of the great moments in 20th Century oratory. But that aside, there is little else I can say I admired or will miss. (See Joseph Bosco’s post about this topic.)

Now, in an article on Reagan that is as biting and savage as it is funny, the great and powerful Christopher Hitchens goes for the jugular and takes no prisoners. This is one of his kinder paragraphs:

He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn’t like him all that much. He met his second wife—the one that you remember—because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.

Nostalgia and the passing years play tricks on the memory, and many of us have idealized Reagan into something he most certainly was not. Grillparzer put it well when he wrote that “Death is like a bolt of lightning, transfiguring that which it consumes.” Ronald Reagan, who stutterred like an idiot when confronted with the outrageously illegal and vile Iran-contra plan, has indeed been transfigured, and the media will play up the grief and sorrow to the hilt. It’s going to be a weepy week here in America. Too bad, that so much of this grief is either manufactured or based on a fallacy.

The Discussion: 24 Comments

Remember that Reagan was ushered in as a conservative, fear-laden reaction to the Civil Rights movement.

June 7, 2004 @ 4:57 pm | Comment

Nixon was crooked
Kenedy was an adulterer
Clinton was an adulterer
Washington kept slaves
Bush senior liked to bomb thing
Bush Junior has the carism of a donkey
and Kerry thinks that having a war record makes you a suitable president

Presidents don’t have to be smart, astute and popular this is what actors are for, presidents are there because they’re better than kings and don’t have the ambition of Generals.

Many of the important aspects of everyday life in America are dealt with by state Governments, and the balance of the senate determines what the president can and can’t do in the long play.

Foreign policy is largely determined by big business and external preasures, and the demands of voters forces the hand of popularist politicians to agree or disagree regardles of the current president.

History will remember Reagan as a man who wasn’t overly hated by the rest of the world and who happened to be president at a time when Russia was ready to call the cold war even and climb down.

The American system is designed specifically to prevent one president from making too many changes or from doing anything big.

June 7, 2004 @ 6:53 pm | Comment

I think just about every point you make is poorly thought out and won’t hold up to serious scrutiny. But after yesterday’s debate about gay marriage, I’d rather not go through the exercise. So let me just say that Ronald Wilson Reagan will be remembered mostly for his one-liners and likeability, his role in helping to end the Cold War (which is exaggerated to the point of absurdity by the Reagan-for-Mount Rushmore faction) and for bringing us the most staggering deficits ever, until GWB came along.

June 7, 2004 @ 7:03 pm | Comment


June 7, 2004 @ 8:00 pm | Comment

Well Said

This post is too damned good to try to excerpt any of it, I tried. So follow the link. Good insightful writing will be a nice change for you. Don’t worry, the boobies and sophmoric remarks will still be here…

June 8, 2004 @ 5:42 am | Comment

Looks like Sully will have to find himself another drinking buddy.

June 8, 2004 @ 8:47 am | Comment

No way — Hitch and Sully are practically married. Sully knows just where Hitch stands on these things.

June 8, 2004 @ 8:53 am | Comment

as an outsider somewhat schooled in post-revisionist history, the reagan-mania and reagan-worship afflicting america now is a little puzzling to me.

reagan more or less divided american politics into the ‘us or them’/right-left (some say, ‘right-wrong’) dichotomies.. his ability to ‘communicate’ tried to compensate for his deficient knowledge on the things which mattered. Dick Cheney, on Reagan: “Reagan showed us that deficits don’t matter”. Dangerous economic policies and dangerous foreign policies seem to go hand in hand these days. Especially now..

June 8, 2004 @ 9:52 am | Comment

Adri, every syllable you say is true. But you have to understand the American people. We are heavily prone to sentimentality and revisionism, especially in the case of someone like Reagan, who had the power to touch us all with his rhetoric. It’s the rhetoric that we now recall, and all the realities of his administration have faded away. Luckily, there are people like me and Christopher Hitchens to help us retain a sense of balance as the Reagan hysteria threatens to knock us off our feet.

June 8, 2004 @ 10:15 am | Comment

The Soviet Union WAS an evil empire; that wall most certainly needed to be torn down. And it’s good that the leader of the USA was able to say those things in plain language. Perhaps being ‘as dumb as a stump’ was actually a good thing because it helped Reagan to avoid prevarication and call a spade a spade.

Furthermore, I think the USA is a wonderful nation. I don’t have an iota of sympathy for the current vogue of anti-Americanism sweeping much of the rest of the world.

However, in South Africa,where I grew up, it is difficult to equate Reagan’s government with the notion of freedom. Reagan helped prop up the apartheid government. And, in collaboration with the South African government, he funded anti-communist rebels in Angola and Mozambique.

The automatic weapons those rebels bought with Reagan / Botha money are now flooding back into South Africa. One of them was used last year in an assault on my father in Johannesburg.

I find it difficult to forget that when thinking about Reagan’s legacy.

June 8, 2004 @ 10:47 am | Comment

Sorry if you already saw this, but I think it is brilliant.

June 8, 2004 @ 11:27 am | Comment


Thanks for the link and the recent comments back on my digs. I will write more on Reagan shortly, I trust–my work-load is jammed up tight!–but might I make one perhaps too obvious point:

Ronald Reagan was an actor. While his range wasn’t that of a Gielgud or Olivier, two thesps that were exactly his contemporary peers in the art, he did have “movie-star” talent: he was big, moved with the grace but comfortable strength of a ballplayer, and had the Irish gift with either a one-liner or a tall tale, self-deprecating humour with almost perfect timing, and he had great pearly whites that sparkled with his big smiles and ah-shucks chuckles, but he was an ACTOR.

Actors should never be allowed to serve in high national office, or state office, for that matter. I repeat: NEVER.

Why? Just trust me on this, because I know, I used to be one. A professional one. A good one, actually, with major New York Stage credits thirty years ago, and a couple of degrees in the craft. But I quit when I was ahead because my ego was bigger still, I wanted to be the man who wrote the words, not just recite them, and I wasn’t writing because the acting-success thing is stronger than dope. Which proves my point. An actor’s ego is too large, but more importantly it is too important a component of the person that is the actor, no matter how humbly the really good ones are able to project themselves.

Honestly, I think Dustin Hoffman is a genius, Robert Duval, too, and Warren Beatty, no doubt–but I wouldn’t think of voting for any of them for political office. Telling lies to the level of high art is not a talent and habit one wants in a President.

This is getting way too long. Maybe I should take it back to my site…thanks…

June 8, 2004 @ 12:03 pm | Comment

Becoming president by uttering one line he did not write – Reagan snapping at Bush Snr, “I paid for this microphone.”

“But what no one ever seemed to notice was where this line “I paid for this microphone” came from. It came from a movie — a 1948 movie called “State of the Union” starring Spencer Tracy as a plain talking industrialist running for president. Tracy was making a radio speech and strayed from the lines his slick advisors had written in favor of something straight from his heart. The advisors tried to cut him off and Tracy dramatically says “I paid for this microphone!””

The president who confused his roles with his responsibilities and the reality.

Also, his dreadful silence on HIV. How does anyone forgive that, or even leave that out in the ‘gush-a-thon’ of obituaries and well wishes?

June 8, 2004 @ 12:17 pm | Comment

Jeremy: Perhaps being ‘as dumb as a stump’ was actually a good thing because it helped Reagan to avoid prevarication and call a spade a spade.

Would that it were so! Unfortunately, he was one of the very worst prevaricators. Go back and watch him being questioned abouty Iran-Contra for proof positive.

I never knocked Reagan for calling the USSR “the Evil Empire.” In many ways, it was. And I really admired him for his “tear down this wall” speech. But all in all he was a fraud who has been shamelessly mythologized. He did some good things, he helped restore the image of America, weakened by Watergate, he helped bring the Cold War to a close and he was, as we all agree, likeable. But what a liar, and what a tool for the rich fat Republicans…. And to think of all the hell we put Clinton through for his 2000 pardons, while Reagan’s were far worse, letting all the Iran-contra criminals get away with murder.

Adri and Eric, thanks for the great links, and Joseph — what a comment! Is there anything you haven’t done??

June 8, 2004 @ 12:35 pm | Comment

reagan more or less divided american politics into the ‘us or them’/right-left (some say, ‘right-wrong’) dichotomies

However, I prefer to place most of the blame for our current irretrievably shattered bipartisanship on the Class of 1994 (Gingrich et al.). Reagan was, for all his faults (and I yield to no one in my utter contempt for his administration’s policies), at least capable of being cordial toward Democrats — unlike the snarling guttersnipes who constitute today’s right-wing élite.

June 8, 2004 @ 3:48 pm | Comment

“Guttersnipes” — I really, really like that. And it was indeed Gingrich who soiled the American political scene with his firebrand-style name calling and below-the-belt attacks. I thought that was a bump in hte road, some kind of grotesque accident, maybe inspired by all the insane Clinton hatred of the time. But it didn’t go away. It only got worse, and under Bush it has totally taken over. Yes, time for a change.

June 8, 2004 @ 4:43 pm | Comment


Gingrich didn’t start it, though he certainly engaged in it. The seminal event in the deterioration of American political discourse was the Bork hearings. Personally, I’m glad Bork is not on the US Supreme Court, but what the Senate Democrats did to him was disgraceful and the opening salvo the mud-slinging fest (by both sides) that the country finds itself in today.

June 8, 2004 @ 9:31 pm | Comment

Gingrich did seem to mark a turn toward a nastier, uglier political scene, but maybe Bork was the catalyst. It sure raised the animosity levels between the 2 parties to new highs.

June 8, 2004 @ 10:36 pm | Comment

Re: Bork, of course the confirmation hearings were nasty — but then, with such a hard-core radical ideological nominee, how could they have been otherwise? The Reaganites clearly wanted to pick a fight — and they got one. By contrast, Reagan’s later nominee Anthony Kennedy sailed through his confirmation hearings.

June 9, 2004 @ 2:36 am | Comment

“Reagan will be remembered mostly for his one-liners and likeability, his role in helping to end the Cold War (which is exaggerated to the point of absurdity by the Reagan-for-Mount Rushmore faction) and for bringing us the most staggering deficits ever”

You must not have been trying to maintain a household at the time. I remember exactly what was staggering: 15% inflation. The national economy in such disarray that it’s own citizens wouldn’t lend money to the government unless it paid the banana-republic rates of 18-20%. The so-called staggering deficits were practically unnoticed at the time by the public who was so relieved to get out from under the Carter economy. That, and the 10 years of prosperity that resulted from the end of the cold war, lower taxes, and reasonable interest rates, plenty of people will remember. The domestic result, of course, was that more people came out of poverty than under the administrations before OR after Reagan.

I don’t think the left will ever forgive him for laughing at them. Looks like you’ve tapped into a pretty deep well of that resentment right here, and this comment will probably be as well-received as a coyote at the poodle show, but I was there, working and supporting a family, and Reagan was a lifesaver.

June 9, 2004 @ 7:08 am | Comment

Sam, I know how awful the inflation/stagflation of the 70s was. I know interest rates were very high in the late 70s, and high gasoline prices wreaked further havoc on the economy. Whether Reagan did anything to improve things is debatable, but since it did improve under his watch he has to take some of the credit.

He was always amazingly lucky. His early years were plagued with one of the country’s ugliest recessions. The chief factors that got us out, far more than his tax cuts, were a big drop in oil prices and cuts in interest rates. I’ll give Paul Volker more credit for this than I give Reagan, just as I’ll give more credit to Greenspan than to Bill Clinton.

The Reagan recovery was a strange one. It created a new phenomenon rarely seen in the US, certainly not since the late 1920s, of extreme selfishness, of buying very expensive things and living the high life very visibly and ostentatiously. Of course, this applied to those blessed with the right jobs and connections. It was as though there were two Americas, as class divisions grew sharper and deeper. In the Clinton recovery, the spoils were enjoyed by all, and the wealth was better distributed; the entire middle class benefited. Under Reagan, it was the upper classes and the upper middle class that thrived, and they revelled in conspicuous consumption. Some of the fun trickled down, but I don’t see the Reagan economic miracle as a healthy thing for America as a whole. Lower interest rates and lower inflation were great, but I don’t think they were the result of “Reaganomics.” Now the massive deficits — those were Reagan’s true legacy.

June 9, 2004 @ 9:40 am | Comment

I always prefered the phrase coined by George Bush in 1980 when describing Reagan’s economic program, “Voodoo Economics.”

June 9, 2004 @ 11:29 am | Comment

One of the few smart things Bush ever said.

June 9, 2004 @ 12:07 pm | Comment

And let’s not forget that the Reagan “boom” left the country with a rather nasty hangover, namely the 1990-92 recession.

June 9, 2004 @ 12:52 pm | Comment

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