Steven F. Hayward: The Liberal Misappropriation of a Conservative President

Roundup: Talking About History

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980–1989.

Of all the unlikely developments in American politics over the last two decades, the most astonishing is this: liberals suddenly love Ronald Reagan. They have taken to celebrating certain virtues they claim Reagan possessed—virtues they believe are absent from the conservative body politic today—while looking back with nostalgia at the supposed civility of the political struggles of the 1980s.

“There’s something there I miss today,” mused the former Democratic staffer and longtime talk-show host Chris Matthews in January about the relationship between Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the most powerful Democrat in Washington during Reagan’s first term. Matthews dreamily evoked a time when Reagan and O’Neill had drinks together, swapped Irish stories, slapped backs, and, they say, cut deals with a minimum of personal rancor—as opposed to the ugly relations between the two parties today.

Even more notable is the fact that Reagan has become a model for presidential governance for . . . Barack Obama. Time, having proclaimed Obama to be the second coming of FDR in January 2009, abandoned that image in favor of declaring an Obama “bromance” with Reagan in January 2011. The White House’s press office revealed that Obama had read Lou Cannon’s biography of Reagan over the 2010 Christmas holidays, a choice that might once have seemed as incongruous as John F. Kennedy reading up on Calvin Coolidge. Obama even wrote an homage to Reagan for USA Today in February at the time of Reagan’s centennial birthday. “Reagan recognized the American people’s hunger for accountability and change,” the president said, thereby conferring on Reagan two of his most cherished political slogans....

So what accounts for the patent distortion of Reagan’s record—and for the blatant rewriting of history so recent that even the revisionists must be baffled at their own strange new respect for someone most of them (like Barack Obama) surely grew up reviling?...

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