Buy the book.
Mr. Bunch starts with a description of the state of the Reagan Myth today (along with a few jarring facts showing how it deviates from anything approaching in any remote way truth, history, or the American Way.)
He then journeys into truth and history. (With truth and history, we can find the American Way.)
(Full disclosure: I haven’t finished the book yet. But this story needs to be told. Those who believe distorted history create a distorted present.)
Also posted at the Great Orange Satan.
Here are two passages:
The legend of Ronald Reagan brings a storyline that would have surely wowed any studio pitch meeting: Small-town lifeguard and varsity football player with a loving church-going mother and a roguish, hard-drinking dad heads for Hollywood and becomes a movie star — and when that dream stalls out, comes up with a second act that is bigger and more audacious than the first. The hero undergoes a 180-degree political conversion and becomes a fiery, reactionary public speaker, then a governor, and then, finally, improbably, the president of the world’s greatest superpower. And not just any president, but the noblest commander-in-chief of the post-war area, a man who won an ideological war at home – reversing a half-century of growing government and rising taxes – and then won a Cold War abroad, the global conflict between freedom and totalitarian Communism, before riding off into the Pacific sunset. And kind of like a late-night classic movie like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the storyline became more iconic in the frequent rebroadcasts than when it was actually in the theaters. The post-presidency Reagan became not just the most iconic figure in modern American history but so much more — a kind of homespun public intellectual, as expressed through handwritten diaries and radio commentaries, a humanitarian who exchanged letters with everyday Americans, someone who was as much a man of God as a man of politics.
Today, routinely, politicians – mostly Republicans but even some Democrats — run for office claiming they will be another Reagan, often by promising things that were the exact opposite of what the 1980s president accomplished, or didn’t. In 2008, a GOP New Hampshire congressional candidate named John Stephen held a fundraiser around a showing of the film, “Ronald Reagan – A Retrospective.” “With $2 trillion in deficit spending in Washington over the last three years and overall growth in government, that has the potential for bankrupting our children and grandchildren, John thinks it is important to get back to those basic values of limiting government that Ronald Reagan brought to the party,” the candidate’s spokesman said. Never mind that – coincidentally – the debt increased by about $2 trillion in 1980s dollars under Reagan, while federal spending, in real dollars, and the federal payroll also rose.
. . . That Reagan was a transformative figure in American history, but his real revolution was one of public-relations-meets-politics and not one of policy. He combined his small-town heartland upbringing with a skill for story-telling that was honed on the back lots of Hollywood into a personal narrative that resonated with a majority of voters, but only after it tapped into something darker, which was white middle class resentment of 1960s unrest. His story arc did become more optimistic and peaked at just the right moment, when Americans were tired of the “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years and wanted someone who promised to make the nation feel good about itself again. But his positive legacy as president today hangs on events that most historians say were to some great measure out of his control: An economic recovery that was inevitable, especially when world oil prices returned to normal levels, and an end to the Cold War that was more driven by internal events in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe than Americans want to acknowledge. His 1981 tax cut was followed quickly by tax hikes that you rarely hear about, and Reagan’s real lasting achievement on that front was slashing marginal rates for the wealthy – even as rising payroll taxes socked the working class. His promise to shrink government was uttered so many time that many acolytes believe it really happened, but in fact Reagan expanded the federal payroll, added a new cabinet post, and created a huge debt . . . . What he did shrink was government regulation and oversight, which critics have linked to a series of unfortunate events from the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s to the sub-prime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 helped paper over some less noble moments in foreign policy, from trading arms for Middle East hostages to an embarrassing retreat from his muddled engagement in Lebanon to unpopular adventurism in Central America. The Iran-contra scandal that stemmed from those policies not only weakened Reagan’s presidency when it happened, but it arguably undermined the respect of future presidents for the Constitution because he essentially got away with it. . . .
Excerpt used with permission. Copyright 2009 by Will Bunch. Published by Free Press, 1230 Avenue of the Americas (that’s Sixth Avenue), New York, New York.