Matthew Dallek: Not Ready for Mt. Rushmore: Reconciling the Myth of Ronald Reagan with the Reality

Roundup: Talking About History

[Matthew Dallek is a professor of history and politics at the University of California Washington Center. He is the author of 'The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics,' and writes a monthly column for Politico.]

When Ronald Reagan stepped down from the presidency in 1989, he had acquired a reputation as a resilient, savvy politician. To his acolytes on the right, he had become a hero, a man whose love of country and desire to shrink the size of government had changed the trajectory of the nation in the final decades of the 20th century. Reagan’s reputation soared higher still after his 1994 open letter to the American people disclosing his Alzheimer’s disease. It has recently risen so high, in fact, that a C-SPAN poll of historians and journalists released in February ranked him as the 10th best president in our history, ahead of such leaders as John Adams and Andrew Jackson. The icing on his reputation came during the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency, when conservative ideology dominated the national conversation. During that time, conservatives, almost regardless of their philosophical bent, claimed Reagan: in foreign affairs, realists and neoconservatives have applauded aspects of his record; meantime, those in the religious and economic right have also claimed him as one of their own.

Conservatives are now attempting to denounce and discredit George W. Bush by pushing the idea that conservatism must remain a movement defined and driven by the legacy and achievement of Ronald Reagan. But since Barack Obama has taken office, there are signs that a reassessment of Reagan’s place in history is under way and, perhaps, overdue.

Historians, biographers, and journalists have of course perennially attempted to get a fix on him—and on his place in American history. Lou Cannon, who covered both terms of his presidency for The Washington Post and has written a series of books about him, has portrayed Reagan’s policies as more pragmatic than ideological—not particularly driven by conservative dogma. Another biographer, Richard Reeves, who describes himself as a liberal, came to the conclusion in his 2005 book, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, that Reagan was “a bold, determined guy.” Intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins (who died in January) argued in his 2007 Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History that the president deserved recognition for “deliver[ing] America from fear and loathing.” He “remedied America of all self-doubt.”

Other books have explored Reagan’s religious beliefs, compiled his handwritten letters, and collected his speeches and diaries. A new book by journalist James Mann shows how Reagan rebelled against hardliners in his own party and other factions in American politics to help bring an end to the Cold War. The steady stream of publications has kept him in the public eye and generally served to enhance his reputation. Still, as journalist Will Bunch suggests in his new book, Tear Down This Myth, there is more going on in the establishment of Reagan’s historical legacy than the considerations of scholars and journalists. As Bunch shows, a “myth machine” has diligently worked to polish Reagan’s historical reputation and cement his status as one of America’s presidential giants. Bunch writes, for instance, that Reagan’s defenders viewed his weeklong funeral celebration in June of 2004 as, in the words of former White House aide Rick Ahearn, “a legacy-building event.” Television pundits and reporters took their cues from Reagan’s handlers, heaping praise on the president’s oratorical gifts, his leadership at the end of the Cold War, his avuncular style, and his sense of political timing. Three months later, President George W. Bush told the Republican National Convention in New York City that despite Reagan’s death, “his spirit of optimism and good will and decency are in this hall, and are in our hearts, and will always define our Party.” In order to woo the conservative electorate during the 2008 GOP presidential primary season, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney repeatedly invoked Reaganism as the governing model to which they would aspire....

The 20-year consensus about Reagan’s achievements is slowly beginning to unravel, as it’s become increasingly clear that his policies and politics had a more damaging economic, social, and political impact than has been acknowledged. For all of his impressive political achievements, Reagan was an angrier, more divisive figure than he is remembered as being, and at least some of Bush’s biggest failures are traceable to Reagan’s controversial approach to tax cuts, business regulation, national security, and social issues....

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Tim M. Matthewson - 6/19/2009

I have to admit to a feeling of frustration when I glance over the titles of the articles and essays appearing in this and many other issues of the HNN. Dialogue in the US is blighted by the 24 hour news cycle, and one learns to expect it from the electronic media, especially cable TV channels. But when the HNN begins to sound like and look like cable TV, one has to wonder about the harmful impact on historian journalists of the electornic media. This article about Ronald Reagan is a welcome relief from the baneful affects of the 24 hour news cycle and suggests the possibility of a beneficial turn in the course of Reagan studies. Even before Reagan left office it was apparent that the right was looking desperately for a "great" president to help them with the task of ushering in the permanent Replublican majority, as indicated by the founding of the right wing think tanks in Washington, DC. I never have agreed with the celebration of Reagan and have always thought that he was a highly partisan president and that his influence has been destruction on both the foreign and domestic policies of the United States. And I am glad to see that an objective and balance view of Reagan is finally beginning to appear. The claims of those who see Reagan as moderate and beneficial are laughable and do not deserve the attention they have received.