The Reagan Legacy in German Eyes

Ronald Reagan died late last Saturday, just in time for reactions in all the big Sunday editions of American newspapers. But Sunday editions of European newspapers are rare (let alone – to temporarily borrow a term from McDonalds – “super-sized” editions; those appear on Saturdays, if at all). Rather, reactions and assessments of the meaning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency appeared on Monday, meaning that today, Tuesday, it’s time for EuroSavant to step in and give you a flavor of those.

From the other usual-suspect sources you can get briefed, scattered reaction from English, Arabic, French, and Spanish sources. (But really: only a brief mention from Libération for the French press? No Le Figaro, no Le Monde? We wouldn’t stand for that here at this web-site!) So let’s give the EuroSavant treatment to German coverage. That’s very appropriate, as Reagan’s relations with that country during his eight-year presidency were extremely interesting, with wild highs and lows.

(His relations with the UK were also rather remarkable, in the mutual-support society he formed with Margaret Thatcher for the advancement of smaller government and privatization, and of course in view of the automatic support for Britain during the Falklands conflict. But I usually – not always – leave it to those of you who are interested to peruse the British on-line press yourself.)

You’ll recall that Reagan came into office and immediately lowered the temperature of the Cold War, what with all his talk of the “Evil Empire.” This did not particularly please the West Germans, who had spent most of the years since Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik of the early 1970s building up better relations with the Soviet Union, and who also suspected Reagan of being willing to fight the Russians all the way to the last dead German. Then Reagan promptly became Public Enemy Number One for most Germans – hard to believe, but it’s likely he was despised more than George W. is today – with his insistence that the only way to counter the Soviet deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (nuclear-tipped, of course) was to deploy countervailing Pershing II’s and cruise missiles, the lion’s share in Germany. To his immense credit, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl threw in his lot with Reagan, defying the opinion of the bulk of his electorate (most of which, at least it seemed, were massing on the streets below), who didn’t want any of these missiles. And Reagan (and Kohl) turned out to be right: matching the Soviets deployment-for-deployment proved to be the most direct way to negotiations which would enable both sides’ missiles to be withdrawn, which duly occurred before the end of the decade. Indeed, by his second term Ronald Reagan started looking pretty good in German eyes, what with the one arms-reductions agreement he was managing to strike with the Soviets after the other (even if he almost was allowed to go rather too far in dismantling strategic weapons at Rekjavik in 1986). To top it all off, he sounded like a tough-talking prophet when he went to Berlin in June, 1987, and demanded “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate, tear down this wall!” (We’ll be hearing more later in this entry about that.)


Gerhard Spörl’s piece in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel might be a good place to start (The Long Shadow of the Gipper), as he analyzes how Americans grieve for their lost leaders. (“It’s Mourning in America,” anyone?) “This [entire] week belongs to the ‘Gipper’,” Spörl declares, and Ronald Reagan gets this elongated display of affection and devotion because he was ultimately a winner – a Sieger – and Americans love winners. A winner in the Cold War; even a winner with his sense of humor intact in the hospital after he was shot by John Hinckly, Jr. Little peccadilloes like the Iran-Contra affair can be left by the wayside. For that matter, Bill Clinton was a winner, too, despite his peccadilloes, Spörl adds.

Personally, this gets me to thinking about Jimmy Carter will be remembered, when the hour of his death arrives – you can’t really say he was a winner. But Spörl would rather look forward, to today, than backward: George W. Bush is not a winner in the eyes of the American people. Trouble is, neither is John Kerry. Speaking of the presidential election, Spörl asks, “Can’t America just sit this one out?” Of course not, and he places his bet that the first name of the next inhabitant of the Oval Office will be John (but he doesn’t say when that will be – tricky!), all the while decrying the “mediocre choice” that will face America on November 2.


Then there’s the authoritative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which offers its readers a clear-cut choice. In its (unsigned) lead article on Reagan’s death (The Belief in a New Morning) that paper anoints George W. Bush – and not Bush senior – as Ronald Reagan’s true political successor. The outside world laughed when America elected that B-movie actor President in 1980, and they laughed again when the voters chose the inexperience governor of Texas – wait, check that, when party-line voting from the Supreme Court determined that it would be George W. Bush who would be the U.S.’ Chief Executive for the next four years. And the “striking parallels,” as the FAZ terms them, go on: both believe in supply-side economics on the domestic front and a muscular foreign policy, with plenty of money for the military, in foreign affairs. Reagan spoke of an “Evil Empire,” Bush of an “Axis of Evil.” Politically, Bush is bears the standard for both evangelical Christians and the conservative Right, right where Reagan left off. And, notoriously – for Reagan, but more and more for Bush, too – they both prefer to focus on the “big picture” and leave most details to their subordinates to work out.

Jordan Mejias gets space in the FAZ’s columns to disagree with this entirely, with his article How Bush Betrayed Reagan’s Conservative Legacy. Reagan was always friendly, jovial, if maybe not the brightest lightbulb in the chandelier. Bush does rival him for dimness, but is also basically nasty, arrogant. Reagan was the “Great Communicator,” and George W. Bush . . . ? ‘Nuff said? (Indeed, Mejias writes of “Terminator Bush,” even while averring that it is in fact Arnold Schwarzenegger who is Reagan’s real political heir, and not just because he also happens to have been elected – in a non-standard manner, admittedly – California governor.) More substantially, Bush has not taken up the conservative constituency that Ronald Reagan weaved together, but rather stands at the head of the neoconservatives. Unfortunately, Mejias just mentions that name rather than giving a more clear definition of what he means by “neoconservative” and how that differs from traditional “conservative.” All I can think of here, beyond the well-known audacious neoconservative ambitions to make a blooming democracy out of Iraq, hardly shared by all conservatives, is the heat the President is starting to feel even from Republicans over the ever-deepening US fiscal deficits. Of course, Ronald Reagan had deficits, too – but George W. Bush is putting him to shame there.


But the FAZ is of course based in Frankfurt (that’s am Main, of course); it’s also interesting to look at coverage of Reagan’s legacy from the newspapers published out of that past focal point of East-West confrontation, Berlin. The Morgenpost for example, in it’s lead article A Life for America, calls Reagan the “winking revolutionary,” who “changed the world.” The main way he did this, the paper reports, is through “purchasing” victory in the Cold War over the Soviet Union, via tremendous arms purchases – at the cost of the American economy. Still, he most enduringly changed America – and even the world – more than any of his successors or predecessors since the Second World War.

The Morgenpost’s second article (Ronald Reagan Stirred Up Berlin) focuses on the two visits Reagan paid to the city as President, in 1983 and 1987, with a focus on the latter, in which he delivered his famous speech before the Rechstag calling on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” The article goes further into that speech; Reagan also used it to ask why the Olympics could not be staged (again) in divided Berlin, both in the West and the East. Both presidential visits, however, caused massive unrest elsewhere in the city in protest, resulting in much violence and hundreds of arrest – not that the American presidential party had to take particular notice of that from within its security shield in either case.

Reagan’s visits are also discussed in an article in another Berlin newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel (Visionary of the Fall of the Wall), in detail: “The Twelfth of June 1987 was a hot, sunny day, and the Tiergarten around the Brandenburg Gate was widely blocked-off,” etc. Good blow-by-blow descriptions are provided of President Reagan’s visits, for those who have the German to go savor them. But the detail I like the best concerns Reagan’s later visit in 1990, obviously out of office, when he had the chance to actually walk through the Brandenburg Gate and even chip off some pieces of the fast-disappearing Berlin Wall for himself. It was then that he confided to waiting reporters that he, too, had been surprised that the Wall had fallen so soon.


Finally, do we have space for a word on Reagan from our sponsor, the self-proclaimed “EuroSavant”? When I think “Reagan,” I think of that period in the late eighties, towards the end of his time in office, when I and many I knew felt that the US government simply did not belong to us anymore. That administration had been caught doing something it had said it would never do – namely providing arms to the Iranians, who of course not so long ago had held numerous American citizens in captivity at the American embassy in Teheran – and doing something it had been expressly forbidden by Congress to do, namely providing continued material and financial aid to the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan “contras.” And it seemed that no one was going to have to pay the price for these misdeeds, mainly because the President was so stupid and/or out-of-it that he wouldn’t have to take any rap or even responsibility. And then he actually appointed as Attorney General his close adviser, Edwin Meese (mies, German adj.: seedy, wretched) who had been up to his elbows in these shenanigans and various other self-righteous conservative crusades as well.

The American people are truly suckers for a good, sob-inducing bout of communal morning, whether it’s justified or not. And they have no historical memory – but we all knew that already. “Reagan National Airport,” indeed! Those who want a reminder of what it was really like back then, how many in the US and the world actually regarded Reagan, could do much worse than review Christopher Hitchens’ article in Slate on “The stupidity of Ronald Reagan.”

Me, I prefer an intelligent president, who knows what is going on and is willing to take the blame when it goes wrong. Yay, Adlai Stevenson! Or for that matter, Jimmy Carter. I may be waiting the rest of my lifetime in vain for another such – but hey, I live in the Netherlands, and don’t even get me started on that . . .

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