Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Tearing down the Reagan myth -- now more than ever

This Friday marks the 99th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth. You're going to be hearing a lot about the Gipper this week, and you're going to be hearing a lot about him for the next 12 months. Already, a Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission -- signed into law by President Obama last June, at a ceremony attended by Nancy Reagan -- is busy planning a slew of Feb. 6, 2011, events that may take the nation one step closer toward Reagan's political canonization. Meanwhile, day in and day out, the legacy of the 40th president still looms large over the national conversation, some 21 years after he left the Oval Office and nearly six years after his death -- thanks in part to a deliberate campaign of distortion by modern conservatives, a Reagan myth has been used to justify disastrous spending policies at home and disastrous militarism abroad .

This week also marks the new paperback release of my book, now slightly retitled: "Tear Down This Myth: The Right Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy." When I was working on the book in 2008 in preparation for the original hardcover version, I did worry somewhat whether the likely election of a center-left Democratic president would render as moot the power of the Reagan myth. As it turned out, the inauguration of Barack Obama and the arrival of a large Democratic majority in Congress instead showed the limits of government in the face of this powerful philosophy that is loosely based on Reagan's 1980s presidency but distorts or exaggerates the reality of much of what happened in those years.

The Reagan banner as carried by today's conservatives involves deep and unrelenting mistrust of the government to solve any problems, even as crises from joblessness and unsound fiscal policies and a lack of a serious approach to energy and global warming fester from a lack of... problem solving. Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, captured the White House in the election after Watergate by promising "a government as good as the people," but when Carter stumbled for a host of reasons, Reagan was elected with a much different message. In his 1981 inauguration, he said: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems -- government is the problem."

Little remembered is that in the same speech, Reagan also said: "Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back." But is the first message -- that there is no government solution to any problem, no matter how complex -- that has been hammered home by the powerful right-wing infrastructure, most notably talk radio and now the highly rated Fox News Channel on TV, that has endured and grown since Reagan's tenure in office.

In this present crisis -- the one with deep roots in the catastrophic eight-year reign of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney -- the Obama administration has been unable to do what Reagan ultimately suggested in 1981: Make government work better. Obama mistakenly believed that his election had at least dented the Reagan myth; in a December 2008 interview with political journalists Haynes Johnson and Dan Balz, the incoming president acknowledged the Gipper-powered skepticism toward government but also predicted America was witnessing "an end to the knee-jerk reaction toward the New Deal and big government."

No one ever said Barack Obama was good at predictions. Although he did win passage of an economic stimulus package -- the time-tested solution for digging a national economy out of a near-depression -- he bowed to Reagan-myth-inspired GOP opposition to make the roughly $800 billion package still too small to stop rising unemployment, still weighted too heavily to tax cuts less likely to create jobs. A health-care package that -- while certainly imperfect -- would have been the first steps toward curbing medical costs, reducing the federal deficit and eliminating bankruptcies and even unnecessary deaths -- is foundering in the face of an opposition whipped into a frenzy by the radio and TV hosts who also ask nightly, "What would Reagan do."

This Reagan legacy that continues to prevent action on jobs, on health care, and on alternative energy (it was Reagan, after all, who tore down the solar panels that Carter had installed on the White House roof) is no accident. As laid out in "Tear Down This Myth," it is the result of a deliberate campaign -- led by Grover Norquist's Ronald Reagan Legacy Project -- to name roads and schools and erect bronze statues of the 40th president. The result is that a president who was divisive and had average approval numbers during his actual presidency is now widely admired by a churning population that increasingly remembers the myth better than the man. Even though there's a lot about the real Reagan record to knock (the creation of a debt-powered consumer economy, heartless responses to AIDS, homelessness and urban decay, trading arms for hostages in the Middle East), progressives can't win their case in 2010 with a direct assault on Reagan.

But they don't have to. Here are three ways that progressives can take back the political debate by turning the Reagan legacy on its head:

1) Reagan had a big-spending economic stimulus plan. It's true. As noted in the book, the economic turnaround of the 1980s had little or nothing to do with Reagan's income tax cut that was heavily weighted to the rich but was instead the result of other factors, including the tight money policies of then-Fed chairman Paul Volcker (now an Obama adviser) and a global collapse of oil prices. But there was something else: Reagan also created thousands upon thousands of new jobs across America with a spending program that caused the federal deficit to skyrocket. It was called the Reagan defense buildup.

In the part of America where I lived in the 1980s, Long Island, N.Y., the economy was booming, in part because of the government dollars thrown at the then-Grumman Corp. to build new jet fighters. Now, government has a chance to do the same thing that Reagan achieved -- but not by building machines of death but creating jobs for things that will improve life, like solar power and high-speed rail.

2) Reagan would not have allowed many of the terror tactics started by Bush and Cheney and continued in the face of pressure by the Obama administration. Don't believe it? -- let me count the ways:

A) Reagan was a staunch opponent of torture by Americans, signing in 1988 the International Convention Against Torture, which said "[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

B) The official policy of the Reagan administration was civilian trials for terrorists, as elaborated in a speech by the official overseeing the policy, Paul Bremer (yes, THAT Paul Bremer) who said in 1987 "a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are -- criminals -- and to use democracy's most potent tool, the rule of law against them."

C) Reagan would not have approved of drone-fired missile attacks aimed at killing terrorists; as president he several times rejected anti-terrorism operations for the sole reason that civilians would have been killed by collateral damage. In 1985, he surprised aides such as Pat Buchanan by ruling out a military response to a Beirut hijacking for fear of civilian casualties; Lou Cannon reported then in the Washington Post that Reagan said "retaliation in which innocent civilians are killed is 'itself a terrorist act.'"

3) Obama can best honor Ronald Reagan in this centennial year not by another statue, but by continuing to work toward the grand goal that the 40th president and the 44th president both share: Ridding the world of nuclear weapons. As I note in a new introduction to "Tear Down This Myth":

It was in 1983 that President Ronald Reagan privately screened the anti-nuclear movie "The Day After" in Camp David and wrote in his diary of his resolve "to see there is never a nuclear war" – the ambition that fueled his remarkable series of summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. That very same year Barack Obama was just an undergraduate in his senior year at New York's Columbia University, still very uncertain of his place in the world, when he publicly voiced the idea that Reagan shared but kept secret, an ambition of eliminating all nuclear warheads. As reported by the New York Times, the young Obama wrote an article for a campus magazine that was entitled "Breaking the War Mentality." In it, he railed against "billion-dollar erector sets" and what he called "the twisted logic" of a winnable nuclear war. Little did the then-22-year-old Obama imagine that it would be Reagan who would start the job of reducing the world's nuclear stockpiles or that he himself would be the president in a position to carry that mission forward in the 21st Century.

Although it's rarely portrayed this way, nuclear-arms reduction was the great progressive cause and the great progressive achievement of Ronald Reagan, and it can be so for Barack Obama as well. We've just seen in 2009 that it is impossible to fight an entrenched myth on its own terms. Let's hope that Obama and all of us who believe in more just and a more progressive society can instead harness the Reagan myth in 2010 and beyond, and steer America in the right direction again.