The former president is certainly a suitable subject for public debate. His supporters credit him with forcing down the Iron Curtain, so it is odd that some of them have helped create the Soviet-style chill embedded in the idea that we, as a nation, will not allow critical portrayals of one of our own recent leaders.
Anyone feeling a cold blast tonight? I am, and it's coming courtesy of Sen. John McCain, the man who might have been sitting in the Oval Office tonight as the 44th president -- if the economy had only waited two months longer to tank, and had Sarah Palin not made the acquaintance of one Katie Couric. In his race for the White House, McCain's effort to prove to the GOP's right wing that he wasn't really a moderate-to-conservative-to-liberal-to-conservative-again flip flopper led him to grab the Ronald Reagan mantle so hard he practically ripped it right out the fireplace.
He said he'd been a foot soldier in the "Reagan Revolution" and made a fantastical claim about celebrating Reagan's political ascent from his Hanoi prison cell. But as I learned when I was researching my book "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future," McCain was ignoring the reality that as a center-right newcomer to Congress in the 1980s, he frequently criticized the Gipper and opposed him as often as one-third of the time. Whatever..it was politics, and it still didn't get him to the White House.
But the election is over now, and I find this pretty disturbing. McCain is saying that he may vote against an Obama appointee for the sole reason that the nominee made what strikes me as a fairly tepid criticism of the 40th president, in a comment that was really aimed at George W. Bush. Check this out:
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain today denounced as "highly offensive" remarks about Ronald Reagan made by President Barack Obama's nominee for the number two spot at the Department of the Interior.
At a nomination hearing for David Hayes for deputy secretary of Interior, the former Republican presidential candidate read aloud from an article that Hayes wrote in April 2006 which drew unfavorable comparisons between former President George W. Bush and Reagan.
When the headline came over in a Google news alert today and I read the first paragraph, I prepared to cringe -- what Hayes said about Reagan, who died on 2004 and whose widow Nancy is still alive -- must have been truly awful, right? But here's what Hayes wrote in 2006:
"Like Ronald Reagan before him, President Bush has embraced the Western stereotype to the point of adopting some of its affectations--the boots, brush-clearing, and get-the-government-off-our-backs bravado."
Where's the blasphemy? Reagan and much more so Bush really were urban cowboys with a strange obsession for brush clearing that seemed to evaporate the same hour their presidencies expired, when the Reagans headed for a tony, supporter-built mansion in the L.A. hills while Bush abandoned Crawford for the mall district of Dallas. "Bravado" can be a politically loaded word, to be sure, but...."highly offensive"? Really, John McCain (who once told this joke about Chelsea Clinton, but I disgress...)? McCain actually said he may not vote for Hayes because of the Reagan remark.
Last time I checked, this is America, not the Vatican. We are a nation with heroes by the boatloads, but not a single saint. No public figure, living or dead, should be immune from legitimate criticism -- to seek to block a person from a political office for making such a relatively innocuous public writing is chilling indeed. That such an anti-speech move would come from the man who almost placed his right hand on the Bible to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution..." is appalling. America will never solve its problems of the present without honest appraisals of past leaders like Reagan, warts and all.
As a quick footnote tonight, on the same subject of tearing down myths, kudos to a Republican state senator from California named Roy Ashburn, who voted for a budget that included tax increases to keep the Golden State from plunging into the abyss. Ashburn staved off a recall drive by noting he was just following the example of Reagan, who enacted the largest tax increase in U.S. state history as California governor in 1967. I guess facts really are stubborn things, after all.