26 March 2011

We have it in our power to begin the world over again

US President Jimmy Carter's famous July 1979 address, which became known as the 'crisis of confidence speech', made the following iconoclastic statement:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Carter went on to outline an ambitious programme to wean the US economy off its dependence on foreign oil imports through investment in emerging technologies to supply new sources of fuel, coupled with strong restrictions on oil imports. He even set a goal of 20 percent of national energy supply to be obtained through solar power by the year 2000. These policies, announced in the last months of the Carter administration, were quickly swept aside following Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in the election on 4 November 1980.

Retired US Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, now a lecturer in US foreign policy at Boston University, discusses the shift from Carter to Reagan in Eugene Jarecki's documentary, American Idol: Reagan, which was commissioned by the BBC and HBO to mark the centenary of Ronald Reagan's birth:

Bacevich: In 1980 I voted for Ronald Reagan because I was a serving soldier and Reagan was the guy who was going to redress the ills of the United States military. I voted for him again in 1984, because he seemed to be making good on that promise. He was the most skillful politician of our time. What I would say in retrospect is that I cast my vote without having a proper appreciation of the issues of the moment.  

Reagan (clip): I think we've given the American people back their spirit, and I think we're in a position once again to heed the words of Thomas Paine: We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

Bacevich: That was Reagan. That's what Reagan had on offer in the 1970s and 1980s. Which basically said that circumstance doesn't matter. The accumulation of history over the previous two centuries doesn't matter. We can choose anything we want and it will be ours. But it's nonsense. We can't start the world over again. My bottom line judgement of Jimmy Carter doesn't really depart from the conventional wisdom that I think he was a failure as a president. That said, there was a moment when he, however briefly, grasped a central truth about the American predicament.

Carter (clip, 15 July 1979) It's clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages. Deeper even than inflation or recession.

Bacevich: The problems we face are not 'out there'. The problems we face are 'in here'. We have committed ourselves to the pursuit of freedom where our definition of freedom is simply false. We have convinced ourselves that through the piling up of material goods and indulging the appetites of a consumer society, that by going down that road we will best be able to find life, liberty and happiness. Carter argued that our dependence on oil was central to this, and that it would lead us down the path toward interventionism and conflict. What Ronald Reagan said is, 'You don't have to sacrifice. You don't have to make do. You don't have to get by with less. There's plenty of oil. There's an infinite supply. Trust me'.  

The documentary is a skilful analysis of Reagan's place in American political culture, and how he turned himself from a fading B-movie actor into the consummate political communicator and the leader of the nation he so revered.

Virtually everyone agrees that his life both before and during his political career was characterised by a remarkable bounty of good fortune. Reagan, it seems, was just born lucky.

His proponents laud his brilliant ability to communicate with the American people and to revitalise a nation that seemed to be losing its way in the 1970s, and how he restored America's military reputation and laid the groundwork for both the victory over communism and the end of the Cold War.

His critics point out that his economic revolution burdened the US economy with massive structural deficits and resulted in a huge transfer of wealth to a highly privileged elite, that he lied to the American people over the shambolic and illegal Iran-Contra scandal, and that his great power brinksmanship ran a real risk of plunging the world into nuclear catastrophe.

Amongst the most insightful of the commentators interviewed is the president's son, Ron Reagan, who bears a strong physical resemblance to his father, and who spoke eloquently and seemingly without any innate need to gloss over some of his father's failings to give a strong picture of the man behind the image, and the convictions that drove him.

In a sense both the boosters and the critics were right. As modern America often seeks to invoke a mythologised, almost semi-divine image of Reagan as the great saviour of the national identity, Jarecki's film shows us the true complexity of the story behind one of the 20th century's most intriguing political figures.

See also:
Reagan, presumably in his role as president of the Screen Actors' Guild, introducing the shy and retiring Jayne Mansfield at an awards ceremony:

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