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Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 1999 /11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Is Bubba a Reagan clone? -- AT LAST CLINTONOIDS have found something about Ronald Reagan worth emulating. Naturally, it would be a decision that shouldn't be emulated.

Asked why the Clinton Presidential Foundation wasn't going to reveal the names of contributors, its president -- Little Rock's own, ever affable Skip Rutherford -- produced a precedent.

"Based on the information I've been able to learn to date,'' said the Skipper about the Gipper, "the Reagan Foundation did raise money and did not report any contributors.''

Unfortunately, there are bad precedents as well as good, and saying the Gipper did it this way doesn't necessarily mean it was the right way.

Allowing anybody who wants to funnel money into the library/monument/plaything of a sitting president opens the door to anonymous payoffs. It's a fine way for corporations, foreign powers, political appointees and anybody else who owes a president a favor to pay him back.

As a fund-raising technique, collecting money for a presidential library sure beats holding White House coffees or renting out the Lincoln Bedroom. Those became matters of public record.

Naturally, the technicalities have to be observed. When this president talks up his library to a bunch of fashion executives at La Grenouille in New York, or appears before the elite at the Sheraton Manhattan, he doesn't actually pass the hat. That would be against the law, and we all know how much this president respects the law. (See his citation for contempt of court.)

Instead, the president gives his spiel, shakes hands all around and leaves it to somebody else to ask for the check. It's all as legal as it is anonymous. And perfectly in line with a great American principle: Where there's a law, there's a way around it.

Unfortunately, fund-raising may be the only aspect of Reaganism that seems to have rubbed off on the Clinton White House. When it comes to the national defense, or tax cuts, or confronting evil empires, or candid cooperation with Congress and the courts when scandal breaks, there's no sign of the Gipper's influence.

Correction: In one respect, this president has come around to one of the principal programs of Ronald Reagan's defense policy: Star Wars. After years of dismissing the possibility of any defense against nuclear missiles, the Clinton administration is actively pursuing one.

This administration now has recognized that to build such a defense, the anti-ballistic missile treaty will have to be revoked or amended. Washington has even offered to help the Russians build an anti-missile defense around Irkutsk in Siberia in order to win their cooperation. Much as Ronald Reagan did when he first proposed this revolutionary idea more than a decade ago.

I remember that Star Wars speech. And I remember my first reaction: Wacky! Dangerous! Why upset all the arms treaties on the books to build this enormously expensive sci-fi gizmo? And, most dubious of all, why offer to help the evil empire, too? Crazy.

But after the first shock, a few realizations began to set in: Man is still CQ: Homo Faber, the species that makes tools. Human technology is an impulse that can't be thwarted, only channeled. Somebody is going to build an anti-ballistic missile system, and it better be us.

And what better way to assure the Soviets, and keep them from launching a pre-emptive strike before our anti-ballistic missiles are in place, than to offer to share the system with them?

But how did Dutch Reagan know all that? Wasn't he supposed to be an airhead? Isn't that what his latest biographer called him?

Not quite. To quote Edmund Morris: "I did not call him an airhead. The quote, as first published in the Washington Post, dropped the word `apparent' before `airhead.' What I said in the book that appears plainly on the page is I found him at first an `apparent airhead.' And the whole course of the book makes it quite obvious that that first impression was wrong.''

One can understand Mr. Morris' original confusion. Ronald Reagan's uncanny foresight has never been easy to explain. He never fit the conventional picture of a great statesman -- whether he was proposing Star Wars or deciding the free world could do business with Gorby. He was always breaking through the frame. It has taken a decade for Bill Clinton, who does correspond with every conventional idea of a politician, to catch on.

Ronald Reagan was one of those historic anomalies that come along from time to time to mystify the world -- like Mozart. They seem strangely naive at first, and yet, once they clear away our preconceptions, every note they sound seems to fall into perfect place, as if their designs should have been obvious all along, even inevitable.

How explain such phenomena?

My take is that Reagan was an idiot savant at politics -- a blank tablet when he wasn't playing a role, brilliant when he was. As for W.A. Mozart, I figure he wasn't human at all, but an angel.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, is neither idiot nor savant, and he's certainly no angel. He's the apotheosis of the conventional politician -- indeed, the embodiment of the public opinion polls. If he's not following them, he's manipulating them.

This president is a synthesizer par excellence, a homogenizer of the most conventional and fashionable ideas floating around at any given moment. Which may explain why it's taken him a decade to catch up with Ronald Reagan's proposals about Star Wars, the ABM treaty and offering the Russians assistance.

The momentum of events has made such ideas unavoidable. Nuclear threats mount -- Communist China, North Korea, Iran and Iraq. ... None of those regimes is likely to be dissuaded by some paper agreement. And that includes this latest "comprehensive'' test ban treaty.

Ronald Reagan's ideas may have been astounding when first unveiled back in the '80s -- wacky! dangerous! -- but now they seem only common sense, even inevitable. Like the movements of a Mozart symphony.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate