Steven F. Hayward: Reagan Reclaimed

Roundup: Talking About History

[Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.]

The news that President Obama decided to read a biography of Ronald Reagan during his Christmas holiday in Hawaii might be taken as a sign that Reagan's triumph over liberals is complete. Can anyone imagine John F. Kennedy admitting he was reading a biography of Calvin Coolidge, or Jimmy Carter taking in lessons from Dwight Eisenhower? This represents the culmination of a remarkable turnabout in Reagan's reputation, most notably among liberals, who might have been expected to do to Reagan what an earlier generation of partisan historians did to Coolidge. Instead, we have seen a raft of books from liberal grandees such as Richard Reeves and Sean Wilentz giving Reagan his due.

But while conservatives should pocket these unexpected concessions, they should also note that the admiration of Reagan in the media-academic complex is highly qualified and mostly limited to his role in the Cold War. (And even this story they get wrong.) About the domestic-policy Reagan, liberals are currently engaging in a clever two-step--either excoriating Reagan with recycled 1980s clichés (favors the rich, hates the poor and minorities, reckless deregulation, and so forth), or making him out to be a crypto-liberal who tacitly set out to shore up the welfare state while cloaking himself in anti-big government rhetoric. Ever so slowly, liberals are attempting a subtle revisionism. This revisionism is alarming not simply as an offense against historical accuracy, but also because the Liberal Revised Standard Version of Reagan will be used against the Tea Party and congressional Republicans in the months and years to come. We can expect to hear (and have already heard once or twice) that even Reagan didn't attack entitlements the way Paul Ryan and today's radical House Republicans propose to do.

It wouldn't be the first time the Left has pulled off a historical Brinks job on a Republican whose achievements and popularity could not be destroyed with a direct attack. A hundred years ago, the leading Progressives appropriated Abraham Lincoln for their cause, even as they explicitly attacked Lincoln's (and the Founders') central political philosophy of natural rights. It culminated in the chutzpah of Franklin Roosevelt's declaration in 1929 that "it is time for us Democrats to claim Lincoln as one of our own," and in the early 1990s with New York's ultra-liberal governor, Mario Cuomo, ostentatiously embracing Lincoln because "he's reassuring to politicians like me."...

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