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...