Essays - Summer 2009

Not Ready for Mt. Rushmore

Reconciling the myth of Ronald Reagan with the reality

By Matthew Dallek | June 1, 2009

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.

Reagan has become a conservative icon. His defenders have lobbied to add his face to Mt. Rushmore and to put it on the front of the dime, replacing Franklin Roosevelt. And since Roosevelt has a memorial near the National Mall, Reagan’s supporters want one too. Washington’s National Airport was renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 1998, and the largest new federal office building in Washington is also named for him.

Criticism of Reagan has been largely absent from the political discourse of the nation. Reagan’s most ardent supporters have refused to tolerate it. During the week of his funeral, “Those who weren’t remembering Reagan in the politically approved way—who credited him for his gracious demeanor, say, or sense of humor—were derided as patronizing,” wrote Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland College of Journalism. “And those who actually had the audacity to point out that as president, Reagan alienated millions of people at home and abroad, were blasted as unpatriotic.” When CBS announced plans to air an unflattering television mini-series about Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 2003, conservatives boycotted the network. Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie called upon CBS to provide disclaimers announcing that the program was fiction. Instead, CBS canceled it and the cable network Showtime ran the series. When Barack Obama announced during the 2008 presidential campaign that he wanted to engage Iran using diplomacy, as Reagan had once done with the Soviet Union, William J. Bennett, Reagan’s secretary of education, responded by co-writing an article in National Review taking umbrage at any comparison between Reagan and Obama.

Reagan’s Democratic critics tended to attack him either as an “amiable dunce” or as an anticommunist extremist. The charges failed to resonate, and he never lost a campaign in a general election. He was not just an actor trying “to play Governor” (or president), as one television ad charged during Reagan’s first gubernatorial run, in California in 1966. Reagan was a gifted orator. He understood how to win over an audience, he was quick-witted on the stump, and he told anecdotes that seemed to stick in voters’ minds. He was a man of deeply felt beliefs. Plus, he had the ability to dismantle his opponents while smiling. Reagan’s forte was invoking uplifting nationalistic sentiments, making gauzy tributes to God and America’s grandeur, and hammering home the ideal of individual striving and faith that America was the locus of liberty in world history.

Rutgers historian David Greenberg wrote to me in an e-mail that historians have viewed Reagan favorably in part because they’ve “given him some credit for the end of the Cold War. While most historians would give far more credit to Gorbachev, Reagan resisted the advice of the hardliners and did something rather unusual for him—and hard for any president to do—he did a 180 and embraced the summit process and arms control. He took Gorbachev seriously.” Reagan, Mann writes in The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, used his second term to soften his decades-long antipathy toward communism, “rebelled against the forces and ideas that had made the Cold War seem endless and intractable,” and helped to end it.

Reagan is also considered to be “a significant president in helping to move the climate of Washington politics to the right,” according to Greenberg. He “helped revitalize the Republican Party after Watergate and gave conservative politicians a set of words and images and issues to use for the next decade.” While liberal historians “may not have applauded these achievements, they do, as historians, recognize them as achievements.”

Meanwhile, Bunch’s Tear Down This Myth is attracting positive attention on the left, which seems eager to discredit Reagan’s ideas in newly assertive ways. Most important, the political environment, which is still being influenced by George W. Bush’s negative legacy, has created the space for scholars, journalists, politicians, and Americans in general to reexamine what the Reagan presidency actually achieved. If history is written by the winners, then the conservative environment of the Bush years was a logical time for the burnishing of Reagan’s reputation, and the new era of Obama is a logical time for a reassessment.

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.

Welfare for the Wealthy

Any assessment of the Reagan presidency should begin by examining the ideas that defined his economic agenda. Reagan pioneered supply-side economics and was the first president since the New Deal to put in place a thoroughgoing hands-off, deregulatory philosophy. In 1981, Reagan enacted the Economic Recovery Tax Act, which became the model for George W. Bush’s tax cuts two decades later. Reagan’s legislation drastically changed the nation’s economic priorities. It sharply cut marginal income taxes on the wealthy, slashed the capital-gains tax, lowered taxes on oil companies and other large businesses, and reduced spending on a host of unpopular social programs that had inspired Reagan’s critique of the bloated federal welfare state. Welfare, food stamps, school lunches, job training, student loans—Reagan’s first budget reduced spending in all these areas.

In contrast, his administration generously funded the nation’s military budget. Reagan devoted billions in spending to new military hardware and to researching weapons systems, including his Star Wars missile shield, a program that he endorsed in March of 1983. In his 2008 book, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz explained how Reagan’s first budget marked a sharp turn in the nation’s economic direction: “wealth would be redistributed toward the wealthy, while the government would be starved of funds to meet non-military needs.” The exploding budget deficits that resulted were among Reagan’s most significant legacies. In 1980, the national debt stood at $994 billion; by 1989, it had nearly tripled to $2.8 trillion. Wilentz puts the blame squarely on Reagan’s program to reduce taxes while increasing the defense budget and failing to curb government’s growth beyond the social programs, which in any case weren’t a large part of the budget. While “the administration and its supporters were quick to blame a spendthrift Congress” for the deficits, Wilentz writes, “the administration itself (which never submitted a balanced budget) was chiefly responsible,” because incoming federal tax revenues in the 1980s “came nowhere near the levels required to cover the immense new outlays on the military.”

Moreover, the economic consequences of deficit spending for the country on a range of issues were hard to overstate. As Wilentz argues:

Deficits stripped the government of funds that might have been invested in the nation’s economic infrastructure. The requisite borrowing from abroad to cover the government’s obligations also turned the United States from a major international creditor into the world’s largest debtor in world markets. But if he wanted to reduce the deficits, Reagan would have been forced either to forgo the military buildup and the tax cuts that were the pillars of his presidency, or to ask the American people to make sacrifices in their material standard of living. Neither choice, for Reagan, was an option.

Reagan’s White House had said that lower marginal tax rates on the wealthy would create incentives for them to invest their money, thereby stimulating the economy and raising federal tax receipts. Cut taxes, they said, and tax revenues will go up. As we now know, that didn’t happen. Reagan’s refusal to make tough economic decisions inaugurated an era of reckless government spending, one that pioneered the notion that, as Dick Cheney put it during his vice presidency, “deficits don’t matter.”

But Reagan’s commitment to cutting taxes wasn’t nearly as unwavering as some of his conservative supporters have claimed. In 1982, he raised the gas tax and reversed some of his own tax cuts. In 1983, he achieved a bipartisan deal with Congress to raise Social Security payroll taxes, making the program more solvent. He reformed the tax code in 1986—cutting corporate tax rates and marginal tax rates on the wealthy while increasing the capital gains tax rate and abolishing some tax shelters—and showed flexibility that his ideological heir George W. Bush rarely showed on a host of fiscal issues.

Nonetheless, after Reagan’s 1981 budget was enacted, the die was cast. David A. Stockman, Reagan’s first budget director, who later denounced the Reagan revolution as a fraud perpetrated against the public, described the dynamic this way: “After November 1981, the administration locked the door on its own disastrous fiscal policy jail cell and threw away the key.” Stockman said that nobody inside the administration would give up anything. President Reagan wanted the tax cut; the defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, was defending his $1.46 trillion budget; and White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker was making sure nobody in the administration proposed to cut Social Security, lest it hurt the president’s political standing. “The nation’s huge fiscal imbalance was never addressed or corrected,” Stockman wrote; “it just festered and grew.” Reagan’s rhetoric notwithstanding, the size of the federal government expanded. He made Veterans Affairs a cabinet-level agency, and the number of federal employees increased on his watch. So much for warnings about the dangers of big government.

The savings and loan crisis, the precursor of today’s financial meltdown, came about as a result of Reagan’s anti-regulatory approach. Reagan had made good on the business philosophy he had promised during the campaign: in order to give markets a freer hand, he relaxed federal regulations. Indeed, he led the charge to eliminate regulations on loans the S&Ls made, so that they operated in an unfettered environment with little oversight from the government. By 1988, this policy resulted in a debacle. Hundreds of S&Ls had made a series of high-risk investments. When the S&Ls began to fail, the administration was left with little choice but to use the power of the federal government to bail them out with taxpayer dollars. Up until Bush’s 2008 TARP program, the Reagan-led effort represented the largest government bailout in history, costing the American people an estimated $500 billion.

Even the admiring Diggins admitted that “the S&L debacle suggests the unintended consequences of Reaganomics” and that Reagan’s deregulation had backfired. “The idea of deregulation intended to remove government from the private sector of the free market. Yet the program was based on government-guaranteed banking deposits. Capitalism, hailed for its aversion to public policy and willingness to compete and take risks, actually wanted government to minimize all contingency while S&L directors gambled with other people’s money” by investing in junk bonds and other risky securities. The situation bore at least passing resemblance to the high-risk investment strategy of under-regulated banks buying up billions in bad mortgages that happened on Bush’s watch, although Democrats, including President Clinton, can share some of the blame.

Who Ended the Cold War?

Reagan’s defenders’ strongest claim for his legacy is that he won the Cold War. He alone, they say, had the foresight and wisdom to invest heavily in a military buildup; challenge the Soviets, using bold and tough rhetoric; and repeatedly invoke the cause of freedom as the United States battled implacably repressive regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Confronted with Reagan’s strengthened military and his verbal assaults, the Soviet Union imploded, and the Cold War ended in a triumphant U.S. victory. As Mann’s new book shows, the president’s approach during his second term was “generally at variance with his image as a truculent Cold Warrior.” Reagan, says Mann, was among the administration’s “doves” in the last years of his presidency.

Stephen Kotkin, a specialist in Soviet history at Princeton, punches even more holes in the mythology of Reagan’s single-handed triumph over the Soviet bear. He recently pointed out in a blog post that Reagan’s greatest contribution to ending the Cold War was that “he possessed the vital political credibility . . . to respond seriously to arms control overtures by Mikhail Gorbachev, thereby giving the Soviets the room to destroy their own system unintentionally.” By putting the end of the Cold War into its larger geopolitical context, Kotkin suggests that Reagan was an important, if not always crucial, factor in this much bigger story. Reagan wisely negotiated a series of arms-reduction agreements, which led to a thawing in the Cold War. Reagan succeeded by departing from the almost single-minded anticommunism that had defined him throughout his political life.

Kotkin also asserts that the explanation for the end of the Cold War is too often “Reagan-centric.” The idea that Reagan “won” the Cold War reduces the story to the myth of a lone cowboy riding to the rescue when the world was on the eve of nuclear annihilation. “Too many analysts credit President Reagan with having helped bring down the evil empire,” Kotkin writes, “by building up America’s military and bankrupting the Soviets (who were forced to respond in kind).” But Kotkin points out that the Soviets had increased military spending to “astronomical levels in the 1970s,” before Reagan took office, and that by the 1980s they had determined that his missile defense system “would never work.” Kotkin suggests that, to understand the collapse of communism, we must look “to the wider world.” The most damaging competition to the Soviet Union came, he says, not simply from Reagan’s rhetoric but also from the material and intellectual appeal of post–World War II U.S. and Western capitalism. “Affordable Levittown homes, ubiquitous department stores overflowing with inexpensive consumer goods, expanded health and retirement benefits, and democratic institutions” effectively challenged the Soviet Union in ways that ultimately forced “Gorbachev’s fatal reform effort” to the fore, Kotkin says.

Reagan did make one foreign-policy decision that George W. Bush would have done well to emulate: instead of expanding America’s military mission in the Middle East, he withdrew U.S. troops. In 1982, he put U.S. Marines on the ground in Beirut as part of a multinational peacekeeping operation. But the mission was ill planned and poorly defined. John McCain, who was then a member of the House of Representatives, voted against the deployment, arguing that our political leaders hadn’t given U.S. soldiers a clear and achievable mission. By inserting troops into Lebanon’s civil war, McCain said, the United States would become bogged down and court disaster. In October 1983, a suicide bomber detonated his truck in a Marine barracks, killing 241 Marines and other U.S. troops.

Reagan said that despite the killings of American troops, the United States was actually achieving “its mission . . . to help bring peace to Lebanon and stability to the Middle East.” Soon after making those comments, however, he decided to withdraw all U.S. troops from Lebanon. In the end, Reagan’s policy failed to stabilize Lebanon or spread peace or freedom in the Middle East. Still, especially with the advantage of hindsight, Reagan’s decision to stand down in Lebanon likely enabled the United States to avoid a bloody civil war in the Middle East that could have become a quagmire.

Reagan’s action offers a compelling lesson in the politics of military restraint, yet the Bush administration, with its ill-fated occupation of Iraq, failed to recall it after 9/11.

Reagan’s good judgment in Lebanon did not extend to some other global hot spots. His approach to Central America had the effect of alienating our neighbors in the region and resulted in the worst scandal of his presidency. His policy focused on enemies who didn’t pose nearly as great a threat to the United States as Reagan said they did. Take the 1983 invasion of Grenada—the tiniest country in the Western Hemisphere. While Reagan described the invasion as helping to end the reluctance to go to war known as “Vietnam syndrome,” he also claimed that it had dealt a blow to communism worldwide. Attempting to tie the terrorist bombings in Lebanon to the communist problem in Grenada, Reagan simplistically claimed: “The events in Lebanon and Grenada, though oceans apart, are closely related. . . . Grenada, we were told, was a friendly island paradise for tourism. Well, it wasn’t. It was a Soviet-Cuba colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terrorism and undermine democracy. We got there just in time.”

Links between communists and Grenada’s rulers were tenuous, and the “Soviet-Cuban connection” ultimately proved to be thin and overblown. Reagan’s White House sought to frame the invasion as part of a noble struggle on behalf of freedom against communist infiltration; in fact, it wasn’t. Just as Bush’s White House sought to twist evidence to justify going to war in Iraq, Reagan’s attempted to pump up a threat in Grenada that didn’t exist as described.

Reagan’s legacy, especially in foreign affairs, included a significant expansion of executive power. This came to light most fully during the Iran-Contra scandal. The White House trade of arms for hostages in Iran and the use of the proceeds to arm the Nicaraguan Contras violated the express will of the Congress, showing contempt for the separation of powers. One day, historians may trace the expansion of executive power during the George W. Bush administration to the Iran-Contra scandal.

Both Reagan and Bush evinced a penchant for aggressive actions overseas that resulted in questionable foreign-policy results. It’s clear, in retrospect, that Reagan’s strong support for the Mujahideen in the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan as well as his support for Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war with Iran helped to exacerbate the challenges in the Middle East that every subsequent administration has had to confront.

Deepening Cultural Divisions

Ronald Reagan’s most divisive legacy, probably, resulted from his role in the culture wars. His social policies were not designed to advance civil rights, promote social equality, or help America ease its transition to an increasingly diverse 21st-century society. For all his political gifts, Reagan was hardly the most unifying president of recent decades. Throughout his political career, Reagan fanned the embers of discontentment in our society, applying his skillful rhetoric to inflame voters who were most likely to vote based on a single social issue. This was partly the secret of his stunning political success. Reagan used anecdotes, statistics, quips, and metaphors that deepened divisions among the nation’s ethnic and racial groups.

His maiden speech in the 1980 presidential campaign, in Neshoba County, Mississippi, struck a note of racial defiance, praising “states’ rights” as a worthy cause in the place where three civil-rights workers had been murdered. During the late 1970s, he began harping on the story of a Chicago “welfare queen”—an African-American woman whom Reagan claimed had suckered taxpayers, abused the welfare system, and made out like a bandit. She “has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands,” Reagan said. Although, according to Cannon, the anecdote was based on the true story of a Chicago woman convicted of welfare fraud, it was racially inflammatory because it stoked white fears that impoverished minorities were gaming the system and wasting hard-earned taxpayer dollars. Reagan, who successfully achieved bipartisan welfare reform in his second gubernatorial term in California, also “had dealt demagogically with welfare in his 1976 campaign,” Cannon writes. During a meeting with congressional leaders in 1981, Reagan promised to find budget savings by stopping the “welfare queen” from living off the welfare state, Cannon wrote in his 1991 book, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.

Although Emory University historian Joseph Crespino says that Reagan “was not personally racist,” he was deeply detached from racial issues. “The president was so cut off from the counsel of black Americans that he sometimes did not even realize when he was offending them,” Cannon writes. When then U.S. Rep. Trent Lott of Mississippi urged Reagan to provide IRS tax exemptions to segregated southern schools like Bob Jones University and the Goldsboro Christian schools, Reagan decided to award the segregation academies those exemptions, breaking with the policies of previous presidents. According to Crespino, his action affirmed “the conventional wisdom that conservative Christians had been the key to his winning the 1980 election.”

“I think he was genuinely shamed by the reaction that followed the initial action,” says Crespino, who is writing a book about Strom Thurmond. “But the IRS segregation academy policy fit with other incidents in his career—notably the speech at Neshoba County—where Reagan and his staff showed a real blind spot. They simply did not grasp how profound and far-reaching the legacies of racial inequality were in modern American life.”

Other stories continue the pattern. Reagan demonstrated just how out of touch he was on civil-rights issues when reporters asked him at an October 1983 news conference to respond to the charge by Jesse Helms, the U.S. senator from North Carolina, that Martin Luther King Jr. had had communist sympathies. “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?” Reagan replied.

“I almost lost my dinner over that [comment],” David Gergen, who was the White House communications director at the time, told Lou Cannon. Reagan ultimately signed legislation that established King’s birthday as a national holiday, but his support for the bill was tepid at best.

Reagan’s appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court showed his pragmatic side, but his more divisive tendencies are evident in his appointments to the lower ranks of the judiciary and his decision to tap Robert Bork for the Court—to say nothing of his elevation of William Rehnquist to chief justice, one of his most lasting legacies. The first three witnesses who opposed Bork at his Senate confirmation hearing were all African Americans—including Rep. Barbara Jordan from Texas. According to Mary Ellen Curtin, a historian at George Washington University, Jordan spoke up against Bork for a simple if compelling reason: Bork had “opposed the key Supreme Court . . . decisions of the early 1960s” on civil rights. Curtin, who is writing a biography of Jordan, says in an interview that Bork had argued against civil-rights laws that “gave racial minorities a chance to compete in the political system.” As “one of the first successful Southern black politicians, Jordan understood that the ‘right to vote’ was only the first step in black equality” and that “the next step had to address the numerous impediments to fair representation at the state level.”

Bork opposed the landmark ruling in Baker v. Carr (1962), which, Curtin says, helped “open the door to the famous ‘one person, one vote’ decision of the Reynolds case . . . [leading] to newly apportioned state legislative and senate districts” that provided opportunities for African-American political representation in the South. Baker ultimately helped lead to the establishment of three state senate seats in Houston. Jordan was elected to fill one of them in 1966, becoming the first African American in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction. Baker and Reynolds were landmark judicial decisions that had “revived African Americans’ faith in voting,” but Bork had been dead-set against them as an outspoken law professor before becoming President Nixon’s solicitor general in 1973.

During her testimony, Jordan told the Senate Judiciary Committee: “My opposition to this nomination is really a result of living 51 years as a black American born in the South and determined to be heard by the majority community.”

Reagan’s participation in the culture wars was not limited to racial questions. He was deeply opposed to research support for HIV/AIDS (which was first identified during his presidency), prompting his son, Ron Jr., to criticize his father’s inaction on the epidemic. Reagan also endorsed such divisive causes as legalizing prayer in public schools, curtailing affirmative action, and banning abortion. He wasn’t able to enact these policies, but he lent vocal moral support in behalf of these causes, which were and continue to be effective in motivating conservative voters. Instead of attempting to find common ground with Hispanics, women’s rights organizations, African Americans, gays, and the poor and the homeless, Reagan often deepened divisions that remain fundamental features of American life two decades after he left the White House.

Reagan, Barack Obama told a Nevada editorial board in early 2008, “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Obama added: “He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Obama wasn’t wrong. Reagan’s presidency was significant; his policies did steer the nation in new economic and social directions. While some serious aspects of the Reagan presidency—think of the Iran-Contra mess—have receded into the past and some of the fury surrounding his positions has inevitably subsided, the debates about Reagan’s legacy, positive and negative, remain relevant to American politics in 2009, especially as we untangle problems that his philosophy is at least indirectly responsible for creating.

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To read Matthew Dallek’s speech to the American Cancer Society, “You’re Going to Live a Long Life,” click here.

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