Legacy Loans

Apologies for the long post; I didn’t have time to write a short one. Apologies too, for weighing in too late to contribute to the conversation.

They say a liberal is someone who won’t even take his own side in an argument, and so it was with me this Pressident’s Day. I received an astonishing document in the mail maybe a month ago, from Brian Lamb of C-Span, asking me to rank every president from one to forty-three on ten “Individual Leadership Characteristics.” I remember chuckling at the ILC’s fine-grained sensitivity. Maybe there are people who can really responsibly rank John Tyler vis-a-vis Ulysses S. Grant as to their “Administrative Skills,” Grover Cleveland versus Calvin Coolidge as to their “Morality Authority”—but I am not that man. I sent apologies to Mr. Lamb; I hadn’t, I explained, anything near the erudition to carry out the appointed task.

Then, last Monday, I learned that America’s “presidential historians” had, without benefit of my input, named Ronald Reagan the tenth-best president in United States history.

I looked down the columns of participants, and saw the name of Annelise Anderson of the Hoover Institute, who I’m sure is a perfectly decent soul, public servant, and scholar, but whose most recent contribution to the republic of letters has been the editing of hagiographic collections quite explicitly designed to burnish Ronald Reagan in the marketplace of historic reputation.

Here’s how Anderson introduced her co-edited Reagan In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan that Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America

The triumph of free markets and democracy over totalitarianism is the great political story of the 20th century, and Ronald Reagan was one of its most visible authors.

There is no doubt that he was the Great Communicator; and the words with which he so adeptly communicated live on. Not only his spoken words, but his written words, too — which survive in his own hand, in numerous speeches and letters he drafted on yellow pads.

What a person writes reflects his thinking and his values, and gives us greater insight into his soul than a ghosted speech, a press conference, or even a private conversation. Reagan’s writings may, therefore, be his most important gift to us — because they explain the man behind the accomplishments. They reveal the thinking that drove his policies and strategies as president (and, earlier, as governor of California). And they reveal the knowledge, intelligence, determination, and discipline with which he pursued both public office and the goals he set for himself, once there….

The man who emerges from these writings is different from the public figure we all know. It was often said about Reagan that “what you see is what you get,” and in a way this is true — he was open and honest and believed what he said. He spoke from the heart. But Reagan’s amiability, adroit use of humor, unfailing courtesy, decency, and confidence in his own beliefs do not fully explain his extraordinary success. These graces — and that success — were sustained by the Great Communicator’s greatest asset: a formidable intellect, as a reader, a thinker, a strategist — and a writer.

Most of the texts in the collection are radio scripts Reagan wrote during the years he spent as a syndicated commentator between his tenure as California governor and his 1980 run for the president. When the collection came out its hagiographic intent was rather explicit; indeed it was inscribed in the very subtitle: “…Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America”—this almost was revelation. (The more toned-down original working subtitle was apparently “A Life In Letters, and Reagan’s Path to Victory”). The title, meanwhile, was even more heavy-handidly ideological: the notion of newly discovered texts in Reagan’s own handwriting was quite histrionically presented as clinching evidence that Reagan was not stupid but smart (“a formidable intellect, as a reader, a thinker, a strategist”).

To someone who never thought Reagan was stupid, reviewing all this has been strange. Such unalloyed special pleading is not particularly scholarly. It fits right in, however, with the extraordinarily self-conscious political strategy with which conservatives have persued the matter of Reagan’s historical reputation—as a political campaign.

One of the things I liked most about Will’s book restoring the “reality-based Reagan” is that it’s not just a model of responsible historical debunking—though it’s certainly that: tough-minded in spirit but moderate in tone, responsible in its scholarship but readable in its execution—but that it’s also a work of investigative journalism, sniffing out and explaining the story of how this campaign—this literal conspiracy to place right thumbs on the scale of historical judgment—came about.

Even before before reading Tear Down This MythI had heard, in a vague-ish sort of way, about the Reagan Legacy Project: the campaign of conservative to get some public building or monument named after Reagan in every county of the United Stations, to get his face on the dime, even to chisel Old No. 40 on Mount Rushmore. About a year ago, I was fascinated by a presentation by Brad Woodhouse at the 2008 Take Back America conference. Reagan’s approval rating at the dénouement of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, Woodhouse, pointed out, was forty percent—the lowest of his presidency. A year later it was 57 percent. By the end of his term if was 63 percent. According to Woodhouse, this was not merely the product of a sudden surge in leadership capacity by our 40th president, nor just a sentimental outpouring for an old man after years of public service. It was the result—he claims—of a campaign.

I’m not saying the only reason Reagan ended his term in the good graces of two-thirds of Americans was that ideologues got to work in 1988 squeezing extra points of public approval for a discredited president like the last drops of juice from a dried out lemon. But I suspect it may have been a contributing factor.

And yet you don’t even have to agree that his final approval rating had anything to do with the self-concious promotional efforts of conservatives to be offended by their activist manhandling of historical memory. As Will Bunch ably demonstrates, at various points in his career, Reagan often rehabilitated his falling popularity by tacking to the left. He did things like increasing spending. He did things like cutting and running from America’s hopeless engagement in a religious civil war in the Middle East (that would be Lebanon, after the bombing of the Marine barracks.” He negotiated disarmament with Gorbachev—the most proximate explanation for the popularity with which he left office.

But every last time he did something like that he was excoriated by at least some conservatives for selling out conservatism.

But if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been popular.

But the fact that he was, fortuitously enough, popular in the last months of his presidency, when his connection to conservative purity was most tenuous—and here’s where the hustle comes in—””>”[allowed] his conservative disciples to redefine his conservative disciples to redefine his presidency as an example of successful conservative governance.” And that part worked—objectively so. Newt Gingrich drafted off the public’s vague perception that being called a “Reaganite” was a desirable thing, and synonymous not with a flexible ideological pragmatism but with conservative principle, all the way to a conservative takeover of Congress.

Will Bunch’s niftiest intervention is correlating the second, more formal wave of right-wing Reagan legacy-building—Grover Norquist’s literal “Reagan Legacy Project,” with its dimes and Mount Rushmore and more—with conservatives’ strategic efforts to discredit the Clinton presidency in the late 1990s, culminating in his politicized impeachmet. By then, Bunch argues, they had successfully cassted the dye. Bush reassured distrustful conservatives in 2000 by labeling himself, not George H.W. Bush’s heir, but Reagan’s heir.

The book I reference above, Reagan In His Own Hand, came out in 2004. It’s a valuable volume. I’ve used it in my research on Reagan in the 1970s, and will use it much more before I am through. But I cannot yet however arrive at a judgment over whether, as Annelise Anderson claims in her introduction, whether her chosen texts in fact fairly and satisfactorily establish Reagan’s “knowledge, intelligence, determination, and discipline with which he pursued…public office” or his ever-present “humor, unfailing courtesy, decency, and confidence in his own beliefs.” Martin and her co-editors, after all, could only put a fraction of Reagan’s radio scripts between two covers. It will take a trip or two to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley for me to discover whether their selections were reasonably representative, and whether or not other, excluded, texts better evidence, among other traits, whether Reagan on the radio in the 1970s—is it possible?—ever proved himself indisciplined, unknowledgeable, uncourteous, or indecent. I can’t judge these things because the product Reagan In His Own Hand itself is so obviously a part of the broader, and quite explicitly political, public relations project on the part of the conservative movement. It’s part of a successful campaign.

How successful? By 2008 Republicans held presidential primary debates at the Reagan Library, in front of Air Force one, figuring “conservatism” as a synonym for “Reaganism” and “conservatism” transitively as a synonym for “virtue.”

I hope I don’t betray any ideological stripes if I claim that Reagan’s legacy is actually more complicated than that, while movement conservatives have an ideological interest in keeping it simple. And that is what Will Bunch quite responsibly shows. One of the most important things about the book is that it will make liberals think better of Reagan. It is, quite literally, fair and balanced—to Reagan. But it is fair in its judgment of the conservative movement as well, I believe. It will make many feel worse about it, because it so plainly lays forth their politicized distortions of the complexity of Reagan’s legacy. “There is no doubt that he was the Great Communicator,” Annelise Andereson writes. No doubt? No historian should ever say there’s “no” doubt about anything.

I’m not claiming to write from some pristine, disinterested position of ideological purity. Especially considering the reason< for the necessity of my two time-starve apologies at the top of this post the same. I’m just saying that when Annelise Anderson opened her mail and received C-Span’s survey, she didn’t worry so much about her lack of qualifications in judging the Cleveland v. Coolidge Morality Authority question to throw the thing away. I suspect instead that if nothing else she voted strategically by putting Reagan on top of all the categories.

I reproach myself for not voting strategically in return by putting RR at forty-third place across the board—strategy in the spirit of doubt. Even though I don’t actually think Reagan is rock-bottom in any of the categories this would have been the principled vote nonetheless. The writers who make a living at saying Ronald Reagan is the Greatest American Who Ever Lived do so not (or only partially) as an act of scholarship. They do so (at least partially) as part of a well-financed, decades-long propaganda campaign. I should have sent in the survey with Reagan the only one ranked, 43rd in every category, as a pragmatic gesture in the interests of the highest principles of historical inquiry. I don’t think Reagan is the 43rd best president; nor do I think he’s the tenth best president. But one historian ranking him 43 across the board as a matter of rote, to cancel out the one who most likely put him at Number One as a matter of rote, at least resets the scale back at zero.

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