Leadership by exemplar: Reagan's FDR and Thatcher's Churchill.

Author:Abbott, Philip

As prominent as the fall of communism and the struggles for democratization in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been, there were two "revolutions" in the West that immediately preceded the close of the Cold War. The Reagan and Thatcher revolutions have frequently been compared and conflated into a single phenomenon variously theorized as a project of bourgeois restoration, populist resurgence, or libertarian reaffirmation.(1) Whatever theoretical construction has been employed, however, the two revolutions proceeded from a remarkably similar set of national conditions (declining power in the international system; slow economic growth; distrust in the performance of basic institutions) and followed strikingly similar goals (strong defense and reassertion of national interest; reintroduction of market forces as the central focus of public policy; reaffirmation of traditional values).

As leaders of constitutional revolutions, both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher implemented their programs through the conventional avenues of modern politics, that is, through legislative reform, electoral mandate, and media manipulation. Thus both leaders were required to locate their programs in terms of recognizable political symbols. While as regime actors in nations with strong, if not exclusive, liberal heritages both Reagan and Thatcher enjoyed the benefits of a political discourse congenial to their projects, both leaders were also forced to confront two enormously powerful exemplars of liberal democratic politics--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill--whose actions and words required reinterpretation for their own respective revolutions.(2) Although neither figure was completely uncontested in contemporary politics, both personas represented heroic national projects which required symbolic imitation as well as revision through indirection. This article examines Reagan's "readings" of FDR and Thatcher's of Churchill in order to suggest how both leaders broke the post-war consensus so sharply and successfully. The difference in the symbolic relationships created between Reagan/FDR and Thatcher/Churchill also provide some preliminary distinctions in executive leadership and political culture in the United States and Great Britain.

Remembering FDR

The monumental status of FDR has stood as an obstacle to all post-war presidents and presidential aspirants. Democratic successors found that a contemporary liberal "measures politicians by the memory of Franklin Roosevelt" as they attempted to formulate policies for their generation. Political necessity required obeisance to FDR's New Deal but, as John Kennedy once complained, 1933 is not 1963 and "what was fine for Roosevelt simply would not work today . . ."(3) For Republicans, however, FDR's achievements (from the creation of the American welfare state to U.S. participation in the United Nations) have been centrally contested. Eisenhower, for example, wrote in his memoirs that he hoped that his administration would be remembered as "the first break with the political philosophy of the decades beginning in 1933."(4) Nevertheless, Republican presidents have often been forced to reach accommodations with "New Deal socialism" and to reinterpret FDR's internationalism.

The notable exception to this pattern of hostile accommodation is Ronald Reagan.(5) More than any post-Roosevelt president, Reagan successfully challenged the authority of FDR and initiated his own "revolution" in American politics. Yet the achievements of the "Reagan revolution" were constructed from unusual elements. Reagan always referred to Roosevelt as his "idol." His "Time for Choosing" speech, however, connected the New Deal to Karl Marx and later he contended that New Dealers used fascism as their policy model.(6) This paralleling of strident critiques of the New Deal and imitative gestures toward FDR characterized Reagan's entire presidency. Reagan repeatedly and readily admitted that he was a Roosevelt supporter and portrayed the New Deal in the Satanic mode of the new American right.

Central to Reagan's strategy was acknowledgment of his youthful status under the influence of FDR. So powerful was the presence of Roosevelt surrounding the Depression and World War II, the last remembered major crises in American history, whenever Roosevelt's successors recognized these events autobiographically they were touched with the problem of belatedness. Reagan, however, gave these remembrances a central place in his own persona as he created his own oral history of FDR.(7) In his "memory clusters," he recalled Roosevelt's election, his father's jobs in New Deal relief programs, and FDR's speeches and personal appearances. Reagan's remembrances of the Depression and FDR's heroic actions are quite vivid. The Depression hit his boyhood town of Dixon "like a cyclone" and "one of its first casualties was my father's dream." The Depression "had such an oppressive effect that it cast a dreary pall over everything." In these "cheerless, desperate days," Reagan remembered the "strong, gentle, confident voice" of FDR who "brought comfort and resilience to a nation caught up in a storm and reassured us that we could lick any problem. I shall never forget him for that."(8)

This seemingly frank and fond oral history provided the foundation for Reagan's strategy. But leaning conceptually on these "memory clusters," as well as partially hidden from them, was an alternate narrative. Reagan tens the story of his father's job as New Deal relief administrator and then as local head of the WPA. Although Ronald Reagan described the WPA as "one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup agencies" he notes his father had difficulty signing up participants. Jack Reagan later found that relief administrators discouraged able bodied men from applying. Reagan the son concludes: I wasn't sophisticated enough to realize what I learned later: The first rule of bureaucracy is to protect bureaucracy. If the people running the welfare program had let their clientele find other ways of making a living, that would have reduced their importance and their budget"(9) The young Reagan, however, was unaware of this danger. He was a "very emotional New Dealer" and a "near-hopeless hemophiliac liberal" who was "blinded" by the brilliance of the president and "blindly" joined any organization that "would guarantee to save the world."(10) These two narratives, one of affectionate youthful remembrance and one of youthful indiscretion and conversion, form part of a general generational ambivalence to the 1930s which Reagan captured.

No events in Reagan's youth were evoked more positively than the American experience in World War II. In a 1981 interview he reminisced about FDR's 1937 "quarantine" speech. "I remember when Hitler was arming and had built himself up--no one has created quite the military that the Soviet Union has, but comparatively he was in that way," he told Walter Cronkite. "Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a speech in Chicago at the dedication of a bridge over the Chicago River. In that speech, he called on the free world to quarantine Nazi Germany, to stop all communications, all trade, all relations with them until they gave up that militaristic course and agreed to join with the free nations of the world in a search for peace." Reagan continued to remember that "the funny thing was he was attacked so here in our own country for having said such a thing. Can we honestly look back now and say World War II would have taken place if we had done what he wanted us to do back in 1938?"(11)

Conventional Republican assessments of New Deal foreign policy centered upon the "treason" at Yalta but Reagan generally interpreted the conference as evidence of Soviet betrayal. To him, FDR was "a great war leader." Under his leadership, "there were less of the tragic blunders that have characterized many wars in the past ..."(12) Reagan was especially generous in his accounts of the efficiency of the American war effort. FDR took a nation completely unprepared for war and in forty-four months after Pearl Harbor, produced an awesome war machine. "We truly were an arsenal of democracy," he told one interviewer, as he noted that FDR was criticized for asking for 50,000 planes a year.(13) The massive military budget increases in the 1980s were thus broadly justified by what Reagan regarded as FDR's own success in preparing to confront a hostile power despite the pessimism of his critics.

As was the case with his New Deal assessments, Reagan employed autobiographical remembrance to support his wartime assessment. Although his own tour of duty never took him out of California, Reagan insisted that the officers in his unit had a direct and "heightened" appreciation of combat because they watched unedited film footage. Reagan himself narrated a simulation of an aerial attack on Tokyo for pilots. He marveled that the product was so "authentic" that "the film would always look exactly the way the target would appear to the crews going on the next run."(14) As president, Reagan's memories of the war focused on the battle-field valor and the autobiographical remembrances of those who participated in the war effort. The centerpiece of his remarks at the Omaha Beach commemoration was the narrative of a daughter of one of the participants in the invasion.(15)

Reagan's memory of when he parted from the New Deal was systematically evasive. In many speeches he mentioned Al Smith's break with the administration in 1936 when the former New York governor charged that FDR was taking the "party of Jefferson, Jackson and Cleveland down the road under the banners of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin." In others, he identified strongly and warmly with the Lincolnesque wartime Roosevelt although he once contended that the "first crack in my liberalism appeared in the last year and a half of my military career." Sometimes he identified with the...

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