Sunday, July 05, 2009

Matthew Dallek, the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics, has an article in the new issue of The American Scholar aimed at "reconciling the myth of Ronald Reagan with the reality." Last year, Barack Obama got in trouble with some people for saying that Reagan "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” but saying that someone "changed the trajectory" is pretty much a value-neutral statement; by the end of last fall, we could certainly say that unsupervised deregulation of the banking, credit, and housing industries had changed the trajectory of the United States economy. Reagan's presidency was definitely a success, in that he was elected and re-elected in landslides, served his full terms, and emerged with his skin intact. And he moved the line in American politics, leaving the point where "acceptably" conservative attitudes and those that conventional wisdom would judge as hopelessly loony much father to the right than it had been before his election. It still used to be worth arguing over whether his effect on the country had done more good than harm, or vice versa. It might still be worth arguing that, except that first we have to determine what his effect on the country had been, and thanks to what Dallek, borrowing from Will Bunch (the author of Tear Down This Myth), calls "a 'myth machine' [that] has diligently worked to polish Reagan’s historical reputation and cement his status as one of America’s presidential giants," it's less clear what that was now that it was when his presidency ended.

The myth machine has worked overtime to not just burnish Reagan's posthumous image but to denounce any consideration of his less attractive qualities as slander bordering on an act of treason. Last year, New York Times columnist David Brooks, with Reagan biographer Lou Cannon watching his back, faked an attack of the vapors over the suggestion that there had been any kind of coded appeal to white racist voters when Reagan, kicking off the post-convention phase of his presidential campaign in 1980, appeared at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, and invoked the favorite phrase of the segregationists, "states' rights." Actually, it was so generally accepted at the time that this was an example of Reagan's keeping the GOP's "Southern strategy" alive that to say that recent historians have "suggested" that it was a way of reaching out to bigots is kind of like saying that some have unfairly "suggested" that Reagan once appeared in a movie called Cattle Queen of Montana. The stokers of the myth machine have turned any attempt to honestly discuss Reagan and race into a taboo area by acting as if any charge that Reagan might have been racially insensitive, or that his invocation of an earlier, better-behaved, pre-'60s America might have great appeal to those who were uncomfortable with a colorblind society, amounted to saying that Reagan himself was a racist in the extreme sense of meaning that he had actual malicious feelings towards blacks. But to say that Reagan was less than vigorously enlightened on racial matters amounts to saying that, throughout his presidential term, there was some mass delusion crippling the black community, which never warmed up to him. Reagan is still the man whose favorite image of corruption and greed was the "welfare queen" with the Cadillac, the man who, right up to the minute he signed the legislation making Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday was refusing to dismiss the possibility that King was an agent of the Soviet Union, the man who supported apartheid in South Africa and who, in his published diaries, clearly regarded Archbishop Desmond Tutu as uppity.

The two big concrete poles for those trying to erect a monument to Reagan have turned out to be his stewardship of the economy and his "winning" the Cold War. In order to use Reagan to prop up the idea that its economic theories can be made to work, the right has embraced the fantasy that the great bringer of the deficits made big government smaller--it grew bigger on his watch, partly as a result of his reluctance to say no to anybody on his staff who asked him for anything--and cut taxes relentlessly. (He cut them, then raised or reinstated them when the cuts didn't have the desired effect.) Even so, the results were more mixed than is always remembered; Reagan, the believer in the traditional family unit who was going to bring back the June Cleaver culture, was lucky in that he arrived just as the two-income household was becoming the accepted norm. Still, people were lying a little about this part of his legacy even while he was in office. What's happened to the story of Reagan and the Soviets is much weirder and more nefarious. After talking shit about the Russians for his whole first term and refusing to even meet with any of its leaders, Reagan looked into the eyes of the new Russian Premier, Gorbachev, and immediately started talking about a plan for mutual disarmament based on shared trust. At the time, this so horrified his old supporters that most of them washed their hands of him. Apparently the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, a development that was indeed helped along by their realization that crazy Ronnie wasn't looking to blow up the world after all and they could focus on their own problems, has done nothing to help his old friends come around, because today, the myth makers are trying to sell the notion that it was the tough talk, and not Reagan's abandonment of it, that somehow magically drove Communism into the sea.

For the myth makers, the peak of human history was Reagan's funeral, a televised pageant that recalled nothing so much as, well, the shindigs that the Soviets used to throw for their own dead leaders in the old days, with lots of solemn talk in the same key and the suggestion that the first person to stop clapping will be hauled off to be shot. It seems to have led to a strain of triumphalist thought on the right that it might be possible to not only elevate Reagan to Mount Rushmore but that he might actually displace the last president to achieve full heroic legend status, FDR, and dump the creator of the New Deal down the trash chute. That's why the only ticket for a writer looking to storm the right-wing publishing houses these days that's hotter than a new book celebrating Reagan is one trying to tear down Roosevelt, and why others are campaigning to have Reagan's image replace Roosevelt's on the dime. Fun's fun, but the Reagan myth can do real damage to Republicans who are dim enough to actually believe it: poor George W. Bush, who was so eager to be seen as the true heir to Reagan (as opposed to the heir of, well, you know), did all the things that Reagan was supposed to do--never compromise, never negotiate, constantly call people out ("Bring it on!"), resist the use of government to interfere in people's lives, even if they were broiling to death on their roofs. He was more Reagan than Reagan, and for his reward, he now gets to listen--or would, if he were into listening--to his disgruntled fellow Republicans rail against him for having betrayed Reaganism, which he must have done, or else it all would have worked.

The fact is that what Reagan promised, and what Bush actually did--talk tough about being a scary, belligerent nation that had no use for the Geneva conventions and that demanded of its people that they be strong and independent and stand on their own two feet--has never been fashionable in this country, at least not at any point retrievable by modern memory. For years, under FDR, it was fashionable to talk about how government could make people's lives better, and now, under Obama, that may be coming back. What replaced it, under Reagan, was talking about being mean and tough and seeing government as the enemy, while at the same time acting grandfatherly and avuncular and making sure that the government was as bloated as ever, so that everybody still got their goodies-- or, at least, everybody who might vote you, which didn't include minorities and those who made up the new culture of homelessness. In the end, George W. Bush couldn't inspire the same kind of mass love that Reagan did. He just wasn't hypocritical enough.

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