Ronald Reagan Boulevard
"Who controls the past" ran the Party slogan, "controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."
George Orwell, 1984
The present was January 30, 2008, when four powerful men walked onto a freshly built debate stage in Simi Valley, California, seeking to control the past most ironically, the American past that was at its peak in that very "Morning in America" year of 1984. They knew that whoever controlled the past on this night would have a real shot at controlling the future of the United States of America.
Lest there be any doubt of that, the large block letters UNITED STATES OF AMERICA hovered for ninety minutes over the heads of these men the last four Republican candidates for president in 2008 who had made the pilgrimage to the cavernous main hall inside Simi Valley's Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. This was the final debate of a primary campaign that had basically started in this very room nine months ago and now was about to essentially end here in what was becoming a kind of National Cathedral to Ronald Reagan, even complete with his burial vault. The block letters were stenciled across the hulking blue and white frame of a modified Boeing 707 jetliner that officially carried the bland bureaucratic title of SAM (Special Air Mission) 27000, but bore the title of Air Force One from 1972 through 1990 a remarkable era of highs and lows for the American presidency.
To many baby boomers, this jet's place in history was burnished on August 9, 1974, when it carried the disgraced Richard Nixon home to California on his first day as a private citizen. But that was before SAM 27000 was passed down to Ronald Reagan and now to the Ronald Reagan legacy factory, which flew it back here to the Golden State, power-washed it clean, and reassembled it as the visual centerpiece of Reagan's presidential library. It was now part American aviation icon and part political reliquary, suspended all deus ex machina from the roof in its new final resting place, with Reagan's notepads and even his beloved jelly beans as its holy artifacts.
And for much of this winter night, the men seeking to become GOP nominee and hopefully win the presidency, as the Republican candidate had done in seven out of the ten previous presidential elections looked and felt like tiny profiles on a sprawling American tarmac under the shadow of the jetliner, and of Reagan himself. Fittingly, each chose his words carefully, as if he were running not to replace the hugely unpopular George W. Bush in the Oval Office at an inauguration 356 days hence but to become the spiritual heir to 1980s icon Reagan himself, as if the winner would be whisked up a boarding staircase and into the cabin of SAM 27000 at the end of the night and be flown from here to a conservative eternity.
As was so often the case, news people were equal co-conspirators with the politicians in creating a political allegory around Reagan. The debate producer was CNN's David Bohrman, who'd once staged a TV show atop Mount Everest and now said the Air Force One backdrop was "my crazy idea" and that he had lobbied officials at the library to make it happen. He told the local Ventura County Star that the candidates were "here to get the keys to that plane."
By picking Reagan's Air Force One and the artifacts of his life as props for a Republican presidential debate that would be watched by an estimated 4 million Americans, CNN shunned what would have been a more obvious motif: the news of 2008. If you had been watching CNN or MSNBC or Fox or the other ever-throbbing arteries of America's 24-hour news world, or sat tethered to the ever-bouncing electrons of political cyberspace in the hours leading up to the debate, you'd have seen a vivid snapshot of a world superpower seeking a new leader in the throes of overlapping crises economic, military, and in overall U.S. confidence.
On this Wednesday in January, the drumbeat of bad news from America's nearly five-year-old war in Iraq fairly muted for a few weeks resumed loudly as five American towns learned they had lost young men to a roadside bomb during heavy fighting two days earlier. Most citizens were by now so numb to such grim Iraq reports that the casualties barely made the national news. The same was true of a heated exchange at a Senate hearing involving new attorney general Michael Mukasey. He was trying to defend U.S. tactics for interrogation of terrorism suspects, tactics that most of the world had come to regard as torture seriously harming America's moral standing in the world. Meanwhile, it was a particularly bad day for the American mortgage industry, which had a major presence in Simi Valley through a large back office for troubled lender Countrywide Financial. That afternoon, the Wall Street rating agency Standard & Poor's threatened to downgrade a whopping $500 billion of investments tied to bad home loans, while the largest bank in Europe, UBS AG, posted a quarterly loss of $14 billion because of its exposure to U.S. subprime mortgages. Such loans had fueled an exurban housing bubble in once-desolate places like the brown hillsides on the fringe of Ventura County around Simi Valley, and had been packaged and sold as high-risk securities.
That same day, nearly three thousand miles to the east, Jim Cramer the popular, wild-eyed TV stock guru, and hardly a flaming liberal was giving a speech at Bucknell University in which he traced the roots of the current mortgage crisis all the way back to the pro-business policies initiated nearly three decades earlier by America's still popular even beloved by some fortieth president, the late Ronald Wilson Reagan. "Ever since the Reagan era," Cramer told the students, "our nation has been regressing and repealing years and years' worth of safety net and equal economic justice in the name of discrediting and dismantling the federal government's missions to help solve our nation's collective domestic woes."
But there would be no questions about economic justice or the shrinking safety net at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the epicenter of America's political universe, what with California's presidential primary the crown jewel of the delegate bonanza known as Super Tuesday less than a week away. The GOP's Final Four evoked the parable about the blind man. Each seemed to represent a different appendage of the Republican elephant the slicked-back businessman-turned-pol Mitt Romney, the good-humored former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, the fiery fringe libertarian Ron Paul, and Vietnam War hero and POW John McCain, a self-described "straight talker" on a meandering political odyssey. Despite their unique and compelling stories and their considerable differences both in background and in appeal to rival GOP voting blocs each was apparently determined to stake out the same contrived identity. It was like an old black-and-white rerun of To Tell the Truth with four contestants all declaring: "My name is Ronald Reagan."
CNN's moderator, Anderson Cooper, followed a script for the night that was clearly inspired by this massive effort including the construction of a special floor underneath the plane to make Reagan's Air Force One and thus the spirit of Reagan himself the stars of this slick TV production in the guise of a debate. The opening shot featured widow Nancy Reagan, eighty-six years old then, in a trademark red dress, greeting Cooper and then welcoming the candidates to Simi Valley. Cooper talked up the Boeing 707 the "stirring backdrop for our debate tonight" and a camera toured the cabin, ending up at the jelly bean tray.
The whole ninety minutes was drenched in Reagan idolatry. It peaked later when Cooper asked the candidates about abortion and quoted from an entry in Reagan's diary about the 1981 appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. "And the Reagan Library has graciously allowed us to actually have the original Reagan diary right here on the desk," he said. "I'm a little too nervous to actually even touch it, but that is Ronald Reagan's original diary."
It was this kind of 1980s hero worship that carried the debate and framed the discussion, rather than frank talk about the grim headlines of war and economic uncertainty that dominated the world of the present. It almost didn't even seem bizarre that Cooper worked into the abortion issue by asking not about their stances in 2008 but about what they thought of Reagan's nomination of the abortion-rights-friendly O'Connor some twenty-seven years earlier. The CNN host reminded the candidates of Reagan's soâ€‘called eleventh commandment against speaking ill of fellow Republicans adding gratuitously that "no one was tougher and more formidable in debates than Ronald Reagan" and Cooper's first question was an update of Reagan's famous 1980 debate line "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
The candidates were asked several different ways whether they were conservative enough, or about the state of the modern Republican Party, matters that would be of little concern to the average voter. Meanwhile, the list of things that Cooper didn't ask them about that night is mindboggling: the high cost of gasoline, and energy policy. Health care. The increasingly powerful role that China, India, and other emerging countries are playing on the world stage. Iran, Afghanistan, or Israel. America's image in the world in the face of outrage over torture and the detentions at Guantanamo Bay.
None of the candidates even seemed to notice what was left out, since they were too busy trying to hit the Reagan stage marks laid out in front of them. McCain, under conservative fire for opposing a GOP-backed tax cut in 2001, insisted he did so because it violated Reagan's principles by not cutting government spending enough. "I was part of the Reagan revolution," boasted McCain. "I was there with Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm and Warren Rudman and all these other fighters that wanted to change a terrible economic situation in America with ten percent unemployment and twenty percent interest rates. I was proud to be a foot soldier, support those tax cuts, and they had spending restraints associated with it."
Later, asked his thoughts about then-Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had been an unknown KGB "foot soldier" in the Reagan era, Huckabee quickly migrated to a seemingly disconnected riff about U.S. military spending, adding: "And I do believe that President Reagan was right, you have peace through strength, not vulnerability."
Paul, the one Republican who opposed the war in Iraq and some of the constitutional abuses of the George W. Bush presidency, was a little more circumspect about Reagan until Cooper asked the candidates explicitly about whether the late president would have endorsed any of them. "I supported Ronald Reagan in 1976, and there were only four members of Congress that did [against GOP incumbent president Gerald Ford]. And also in 1980. Ronald Reagan came and campaigned for me in 1978."
But, for reasons that seemed obvious to his critics, no one was more eager to grab the Reagan mantle than Mitt Romney, so desperately anxious to calm wary conservatives because he had been governor of one of the nation's most liberal states, Massachusetts. Asked the same question about whether Reagan would endorse him, he leapt in: "Absolutely."
Ronald Reagan would look at the issues that are being debated right here and say, "One, we're going to win in Iraq, and I'm not going to walk out of Iraq until we win in Iraq." Ronald Reagan would say lower taxes. Ronald Reagan would say lower spending. Ronald Reagan would is pro-life. He would also say "I want to have an amendment to protect marriage." Ronald Reagan would say, as I do, that Washington is broken. And like Ronald Reagan, I'd go to Washington as an outsider not owing favors, not lobbyists on every elbow. I would be able to be the independent outsider that Ronald Reagan was, and he brought change to Washington. Ronald Reagan would say, yes, let's drill in ANWR. Ronald Reagan would say, no way are we going to have amnesty again. Ronald Reagan saw it, it didn't work. Let's not do it again. Ronald Reagan would say no to a fifty-cent-per-gallon charge on Americans for energy that the rest of the world doesn't have to pay. Ronald Reagan would have said absolutely no way to McCain-Feingold. I would be with Ronald Reagan. And this party, it has a choice, what the heart and soul of this party is going to be, and it's going to have to be in the house that Ronald Reagan built.
Spurred on in part by Cooper's questions and the Reagan-inspired "stirring backdrop," the candidates uttered the name "Reagan" some thirty-eight separate times over the course of the debate. Ironically, that was a sharp increase from the first time that the Republican presidential hopefuls had gathered in this very same hall in Simi Valley, on May 3, 2007, when a field of ten candidates drew a lot of media scrutiny and some ridicule from places like Jon Stewart's The Daily Show for invoking Reagan nineteen times.
That first 2007 debate, nearly nine months earlier, saw almost comically desperate attempts by the candidates to link themselves to Reagan. Even the soon-to-flame-out front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, was so eager to free-associate Reagan that he ascribed the 1980s president with quasi-magical powers that could seemingly be harnessed to resolve the crises of the present. Asked about Iran's reported push to develop nuclear weapons in the late 2000s under its radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Giuliani said that the current Iranian president "has to look at an American president and he has to see Ronald Reagan. Remember, they looked in Ronald Reagan's eyes, and in two minutes, they released the hostages." He made it sound like a standoff scene from an old Western, the kind that was in vogue when Reagan himself had arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s. And just like in the movies, the scene that Giuliani imagined with Reagan and the Iranians had never really happened. But increasingly, that didn't seem to matter. One historian wrote around the time of the CNN debate that discussions of Reagan in the 2000s increasingly reminded him of one of the last great Westerns, 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which a journalist famously notes that "when the facts become legend, print the legend."
The legend of Ronald Reagan is one that few can resist, in politics and especially in the media. It has not only survived but flourished and grown quite separate from Reagan himself, who left the White House some two decades ago now, in 1989, who disappeared completely from the public eye with his poignant 1994 announcement that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and who finally died in 2004, touching off a weeklong festival of nationally televised, advertiser-supported grief that not only interrupted the reelection bid of George W. Bush but probably helped make it successful. Four years later, with the Republican Party at low ebb because of voter unrest over the war and economic woes that had festered the longer that Bush remained in the Oval Office, a posse of flawed candidates was hoping that lightning would strike again.
In the end, only one of the many candidates grasping for the Reagan mantle would be able to pull it down. That candidate, of course, was McCain, who would win a majority of the delegates in California and elsewhere on Super Tuesday and stake his claim to the nomination in a matter of days. In the winter blitzkrieg that carried the Arizona senator to the nomination, the McCain camp produced a TV ad called "True Conservatives," which made a claim (called fantastic by some) that the younger Reagan had inspired him when he was a POW at the notorious Hanoi Hilton from 1967 to 1973, and repeated that McCain was a "foot soldier in the Reagan revolution." What's more, McCain ran ads attacking 2008-Reagan-worshipping Romney for 1994 remarks on Reagan that were highly critical. McCain's tag line: "If we can't trust Mitt Romney on Ronald Reagan, how can we trust him to lead America?" The push was the key to McCain's victory against long odds his campaign had nearly run out of money in 2007, and he faced withering assaults from right-wing opinion makers, such as radio's Rush Limbaugh, who claimed McCain was a phony conservative. The Reagan comparisons had undercut the notion that McCain was too liberal or too old for the job. Now McCain hoped he would write the epilogue to the legend of Reagan, which had been printed so many times and was deeply ingrained with the electorate.
The legend of Ronald Reagan has a story line that would have surely wowed any studio executive hearing a pitch: Small-town lifeguard and varsity football player with a loving, churchgoing 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 postwar era, 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 like It's a Wonderful Life, the story line became more iconic in the frequent rebroadcasts than when it was actually in the theaters. The postpresidency Reagan became not just the most revered 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.
It was this powerful and increasingly ingrained story that was both celebrated and retold in Simi Valley and on CNN on this particular night and given the powerful narrative, who could blame presidential candidates and TV producers for embracing it? Visitors to the debate at the Reagan Library filed past a larger-than-life bronze statue called After the Ride, which depicts Reagan not as a political leader or even as a movie star but as a figure of popular imagination a cowboy in blue jeans, Stetson hat in hand. Simi Valley might be the capitol of the Ronald Reagan legend, but by the winter of 2008 it was hardly the only place where candidates could go to stake their case as true heir to the political legacy of the man many still call "the Gipper," after his most famous Hollywood role from 1940, as dying Notre Dame football star George Gipp.
Indeed, even though it's been just a few short years since Reagan joined Gipp and departed this world, it seems as if one could drive from coast to coast on one long Ronald Reagan Boulevard, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically, especially across the hot asphalt of the Sunbelt, where Reagan and his acolytes worked so hard to build up a permanent GOP majority. You could start your tour down the Ronald Reagan Freeway, the main highway leading out of Simi Valley. The first stops could be a couple of Ronald Reagan Elementary Schools, one down in the Central Valley in Bakersfield billed as home of "The Patriots" and one in the Valley town of Chowchilla, where the new structure with a bust of the fortieth president was dedicated in September 2007, with the necessary fanfare of a military helicopter bearing an American flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol. Be sure to stop in the small town of Temecula, where a sports park that Reagan mentioned in a speech to raise money for the 1984 Olympics is now named for the late president, or at Ronald Reagan Park in Diamond Bar in Orange County, the heart of his political base. Another small shrine erected at the time of his passing is the Ronald Reagan Community Center in El Cajon, California, a small community near San Diego that Reagan apparently never visited, even in eight years as the state's governor. The local newspaper did note a connection, however: Nancy Reagan showed up once to select an Olaf Wieghorst painting for her husband's birthday. Said a glib archivist from the Reagan Library at the time of the 2004 renaming: "I don't know if he's ever been to El Cajon, but I do know he set policies as governor that affected El Cajon and its citizens."
Of course, given Reagan's long history with the state he governed, perhaps it's not surprising that so many places in California are named for him the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse in Santa Ana; the Ronald Reagan State Office Building in Los Angeles; the headquarters of the state GOP, of course, in Burbank, now known as the Ronald Reagan California Republican Center. Then there is the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, a name change that was announced in 2000 when friends of the exâ€‘president, then deep in the throes of Alzheimer's disease, said they would raise $150 million for a new facility. The irony was not lost on some of the staff, who recalled that as president, Reagan sought to cut federal funding for medical research and that he also had become governor in 1966 largely by crusading against the hospital's parent, the University of California, by calling its main campus in Berkeley "a hotbed of communism and homosexuality." At the time of the announcement, one staffer compared it to "renaming the Federal Reserve for Herbert Hoover," while the man who Reagan had fired as the university's president in the late 1960s, Clark Kerr, mused that "I didn't know Reagan was interested in UCLA's medical center."
The discordant notes from UCLA are a jarring reminder that, well, maybe Reagan's greatness wasn't absorbed by every citizen of his home state, which in fact has voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since Reagan himself appeared on the ballot in 1984, the year that the state basked in the afterglow of those Olympics. Indeed, increasingly the long list of honors named for Ronald Reagan is stretching out beyond the Golden State and into the soâ€‘called Republican red states of the Sunbelt, especially in the Deep South. It is getting harder and harder to traverse America south of the Mason-Dixon Line without crossing roads like the Ronald Reagan Turnpike in Florida (known as the Florida Turnpike before 1998), or the Ronald Reagan Parkway in Tampa, or the Ronald Reagan Parkway in Gwinnett County, Georgia, or the Ronald Reagan Parkway in Polk County, Florida, or one of several Ronald Reagan Streets or Boulevards or Highways. Even up north one finds Indiana's IÂ€‘469 Ronald Reagan Expressway and, in his native Illinois, a Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway. Increasingly, small newspapers feature headlines like this one in a small community near Austin, Texas: CITY COUNCIL REJECTS DEVELOPMENT ALONG RONALD REAGAN. This one appeared around the same time: CARJACKING VICTIM SHOT, DUMPED ON RONALD REAGAN HIGHWAY.
Not far from the stretch of Interstate 65 in Alabama now known as the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway, there is the Ronald Reagan Spirit of America Field in Decatur, where the reelection-seeking president spoke at a July 4 picnic event in 1984 and praised "the good sense" of southerners in the overwhelmingly white area of that state. A contemporaneous story in the New York Times said Reagan agreed to speak there because his aides were worried about offsetting registration gains by black supporters of the Reverend Jesse Jackson earlier that campaign season. That fact probably isn't mentioned on any plaques inside the park.
Actually, Reagan could have spoken at the Ronald Reagan Fundamental School in Yuma, Arizona, during that reelection campaign, since the backto-basics school with an emphasis on discipline, patriotism, and old-fashioned teaching techniques was named for him in March 1984. It is said to feature Reagan's picture in every classroom. Ten years later, in 1994, San Antonio, Texas, grabbed the honor of first city to name a high school after Reagan; today all freshmen at the school file down a Hall of Honor with pictures and quotes of the fortieth president. Some of the students could be on their way to an introductory course on Reagan.
In Covington, Louisiana, another community not necessarily associated in any way with the late president, civic officials in the summer of 2008 unveiled the world's largest Ronald Reagan statue, fifteen feet high and made from bronze. It greets visitors at the trailhead of a city park. City officials were quick to boast that the pricey tribute was a gift from a foundation founded by the late oil magnate Patrick F. Taylor. Taylor had founded Taylor Energy in 1979, two years before Reagan began his successful mission to eliminate oil taxes and slash tax rates for the affluent; Taylor's widow is said to be the wealthiest woman in Louisiana.
In New Hampshire in June 2003, state lawmakers voted to rename Mount Clay named for nineteenth-century lawmaker Henry Clay, who was known as the Great Pacifier because of his efforts to prevent the Civil War. Apparently, pacifiers were out in 2003, and the Great Communicator was in. The proposed renaming as Mount Reagan was opposed by some as too early; the federal Board of Geographical Names told New Hampshire it could not rename a mountain until at least five years after that person had died, and Reagan was still living. A state senator successfully urged lawmakers to ignore that technicality "so that he would know how much he is loved by the public" even though at that point Reagan hadn't been seen in public in nine years because of his Alzheimer's disease.
Even some Democratic-voting "blue states" where Reagan wasn't quite as popular have joined the rush to honor the late president. That list includes the Ronald Reagan Academy School No. 30 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where the academic curriculum is based on the popular book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Elizabeth's school board president said in 2006 that the school was named for Reagan because "we are proud to have a school named after a great leader who demonstrated his beliefs in world peace and diversity through his actions" a rather odd remark considering that Reagan is well-known for his large military buildup and for largely pushing back on civil rights issues. Less successful was an effort in the late 1990s to name a "Ronald Reagan Esplanade" on the waterfront in Brooklyn. A Republican city councilman leading the effort credited Reagan with ending the Cold War and balancing the federal budget, ignoring the fact that he did neither.
Other Reagan tributes seem odd, too. When county commissioners renamed a park as the Ronald Reagan Voice of Freedom Park in southern Ohio's Butler County they were inspired by the Voice of America radio towers once located there at the popular sledding hill they also made plans for a live bait shop and a boat rental office. Others made more sense. In the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, heavily populated in the era of "white flight" from cities, some suburbanites still want to break away from heavily Democratic Cook County to form a Reagan County. The Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Site at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base was dedicated in 2008 and celebrates Reagan's push obsession, some would argue with a high-tech missile defense system that sought to render a nuclear attack against the United States as useless. It joins a larger site on the Marshall Islands, the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. And that's not the only Reagan tribute outside the continental United States. There's Ronald Reagan Square in the heart of Krakow, Poland. That Eastern European nation seems to compete against the island of Grenada for the most Reagan tributes. Grenada has a Ronald Reagan Scholarship Fund and a commemorative stamp for the man who sent seven thousand U.S. troops to occupy the country in a 1983 mission called Operation Urgent Fury, credited with restoring American pride even though Grenada did not even have an army, navy, or air force worth mentioning and was lightly defended by Cubans.
To some dreamers back here at home, these parks and middle schools and missile sites are just baby steps along the road not just to memorializing Reagan in towns and counties across America, but to elevating the 1980s president to a level that puts him on a par with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. These more ambitious tributes would include renaming the Pentagon for Reagan, or replacing Alexander Hamilton's image on the ten-dollar bill, or perhaps alternating Reagan with Franklin Roosevelt on new dimes, thus simultaneously honoring the founder of the New Deal safety net and the man who once threatened to roll it back.
Since 1999, some Republican members of Congress have pushed to add Reagan's face to Mount Rushmore appropriately to the far right side of the South Dakota monument. Park rangers have warned that a Reagan addition could damage the fragile granite, and so for now advocates have to be content with ordering an artist's conception of Reagan as a kind of "fifth Beatle" etched into Rushmore from a website, Reagan-Rushmore.com.
Increasingly, these discussions heat up around Reagan Day, February 6, the late president's birthday in 1911. When lawmakers in Utah, arguably the most conservative state in the union, declared Reagan Day in February 2008, four of them acknowledged that they had named children for Reagan and one, Republican state representative Chris Herrod of Provo, said he would not have met his Russian wife were it not for Reagan's presidency and the subsequent collapse of the Iron Curtain. When Reagan died in 2004, an Associated Press story declared that Reagan "had a special relationship" with Utah "He loved Utah," declared Republican senator Orrin Hatch but noted lower down that he had only visited the state twice.
Politicians mostly Republicans but even some Democrats routinely 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, New Hampshire Republican congressional candidate John Stephen held a fund-raiser around a showing of the film Ronald Reagan: A Retrospective. "With two trillion dollars 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.
In the 1990s, the serial plagiarist Stephen Glass made up and successfully published in the New Republic the fantastical story of the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ, whose members shunned broccoli while worshipping Reagan's 1989-93 successor and viewing Saddam Hussein as the Antichrist. In hindsight, Glass might have had even more luck selling the story had his phony church bowed down to Reagan, given the increasing tendency of followers to attribute to the late president ideas he likely did not possess, things he did not accomplish, and powers he could not have had. It won't be surprising if we see more places like a Markleville, Indiana, facility for children with disabilities named the Ronald Reagan Miracle Ranch. But unlike the wandering nomads of Glass's phony Bush 41 congregation, the increasingly mythologized Gospel of Ronald Reagan is a Living Word, spread quickly and electronically, advanced by our most powerful political leaders and pundits.
The Simi Valley location for the 2008 presidential debate might have been an even more appropriate venue than its promoters had realized, since the arid yellow hills with their long-distance view of the Pacific Ocean had never been a location actually associated with the long and complicated life of Ronald Wilson Reagan, but with Hollywood's penchant for mythmaking, centered on the Old West. Near the site where the Spanish mission-style Reagan shrine rose up in the 1990s was the two-thousand-acre ranch of well-known movie stunt man Ray Corrigan, used for the filming of hundreds of Western films and TV shows. That fictional backdrop had seemed oddly appropriate for the Reagan Library, especially when the first choice, reality-based Stanford University, rejected it for a host of reasons that included anathema toward the then incumbent president's politics. Now this movie paradise near the Pacific was the setting for a Ronald Reagan who was inspired by actual events, but not a straight documentary.
Remember Rudy Giuliani's statement about the Iran hostages in the first May 2007 debate? He was referring, of course, to the very first day of the Reagan presidency, January 20, 1981, the same day that the Islamic fundamentalist revolutionaries released the fifty-two American hostages they had been holding for the last 444 days of the presidency of Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Of course, it would have been hard for the Iranian hostage takers to look Reagan in the eye, since the brand-new president was gazing out over the west front lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. In fact, the Iranians had looked into the eyes of a Carter administration official, Warren Christopher, who had negotiated the Algiers Accords, which were completed on January 19, 1981, the day before the Reagan inauguration.
What's more, when Reagan did become president, representatives of his administration would talk to Iran frequently not to talk tough but to sell weapons in a desperate bid to free new American hostages that had been taken in the Middle East. The effort was lamely unsuccessful and flat-out embarrassing, with more U.S. citizens in captivity at the end of the deals than there had been before. It was not as if Reagan's aides' inept negotiations with terrorists had been some obscure chapter of long-ago history it is the cornerstone of the soâ€‘called Iran-Contra affair, which dominated headlines in the last third of the Reagan presidency, and greatly weakened his power and popularity at the time even if it's barely mentioned in the Reagan Library. It is highly doubtful that Rudy Giuliani could have forgotten this in 1986 and 1987, while the scandal raged, he had been the U.S. attorney for Manhattan, appointed to the job by Ronald Reagan.
And so just as CNN's Anderson Cooper failed to challenge Giuliani's claim that Reagan had ended the hostage crisis, he also did not interrupt when Mitt Romney of Massachusetts claimed that Reagan saw that amnesty for illegal immigrants "didn't work." Cooper could have noted that the reason Reagan saw that amnesty didn't work was that he championed it. Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which legalized an estimated 2.7 million undocumented workers in the United States an action he never renounced in the ensuing years.
Likewise, Reagan might "say lower spending," as Romney noted, but the stubborn fact is that federal spending grew 2.5 percent per year in real dollars under Reagan. There's no way of knowing for sure, of course, whether Reagan would have said "I'm not going to walk out of Iraq," but when confronted with a similar situation after one deadly large-scale bombing in Lebanon in 1983, he acted in just a few months to redeploy the U.S. Marines far from harm's way.
Of course, in their eagerness to channel Reagan's spirit, the candidates made some remarkable claims about themselves as well such as McCain saying he "was there" for Reagan's economic plan, when much of the major tax-cutting action took place before he arrived as a freshman House member from Arizona in January 1983. In fact, strikingly, the three most prominent GOP contenders in the 2008 race had all tried to distance themselves in some way from Reagan during the 1980s and early 1990s, before the Ronald Reagan myth machine had cranked into full gear.
As for Giuliani, he had spent much of his first campaign for New York City mayor in 1989, with the coâ€‘endorsement of the Liberal Party seeking to distance himself from the just-departed president who had appointed him U.S. attorney. In an October 1989 interview with the New York Times he "maintained that he never embraced Mr. Reagan's broad conservative agenda."
Romney, who offered the most effusive praise of Reagan, had declared back in 1994, when he was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, that "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."
As for the eventual nominee McCain, he certainly could claim a close association with the Reagans, since he and his first wife, Carol, had become close to the then-California governor and his wife, Nancy, in the 1970s, when McCain was a newly returned former Vietnam POW. But then he left Carol who was seriously injured in a car wreck and became a personal aide to Nancy Reagan after she became First Lady in 1981 for his second wife, the younger and blonder and richer Phoenix beer heiress Cindy Hensley. And if McCain returned to D.C. from Arizona as a "foot soldier in the Reagan revolution" in 1983, there were times when he could have been tried for mutiny. Two months after he was sworn in that year, the freshman GOP congressman sounded at times like a Democrat when he told the National Journal that the administration was wasting money on defense, expressed alarm about soaring deficits, and said the GOP needed to reach out to minorities and women, as he urged Reagan to name a commission on equal rights for women. Two years later, he was voting against legislation supported by the Reagan White House nearly one-third of the time.
Those aren't myths, but facts. Ironically, it was Reagan himself who, as the spotlight faded on his presidency in 1988, tried to highlight his eight-year record by reviving a quote from John Adams, that "facts are stubborn things." The moment became quite famous because the seventy-seven-year-old president had botched it, and said that "facts are stupid things." The tragedy of American politics was that just two decades later, facts were neither stubborn nor even stupid but largely irrelevant. Any information about Iran-Contra or how the 1979-81 hostages were released that didn't fit the new official story line was being metaphorically clipped out of the newspaper and tossed down the "memory hole" the fate of any information that would have undercut Reagan's image as an all-benevolent Big Brother still guiding the conservative movement from above.
A more factual synopsis of the Reagan presidency might read like this: 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 storytelling 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 often 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 that ultimately tripped up his handpicked successor, George H. W. Bush. 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 subprime 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. Over the course of eight years, the president that some want to enshrine on Mount Rushmore rated just barely above average for modern presidents in public popularity. He left on a high note but only after two years of shifting his policy back to the center, seeking peace with the Soviets rather than confrontation, reaching a balanced new tax deal with Democrats, and naming a moderate justice to the Supreme Court. It was not the Reaganism invoked by today's conservatives.
Yet Ronald Reagan hovers over not just our politics but our policy debates, almost as vividly as his Air Force One jetliner loomed over his would-be successors. This is no accident or historical curiosity. There has always been a place for mythology in American democracy the hulking granite edifices of the National Mall in Washington are a powerful testament to that but this nation has arguably never seen the kind of bold, crudely calculated, and ideologically driven legend-manufacturing that has taken place with Ronald Reagan. It is a myth machine that has been spectacularly successful, launched in the mid-1990s when the conservative brand was at a low ebb. It has operated not in secrecy but at a low enough frequency that its central premise has infiltrated our current politics to the extent that few bothered to protest at the bizarre framing or misstatements of events like the Simi Valley debates. The docudrama version of the Gipper's life story, successfully sold to the American public, helped to keep united and refuel a right-wing movement that consolidated power while citing Reaganism as separate and apart from the flesh-and-blood Reagan for misguided policies from lowering taxes in the time of war in Iraq to maintaining that unpopular conflict in a time of increasing bloodshed and questionable gains. Despite what viewers saw and heard in the 2008 campaign, the modern conservative agenda is not based on the once-sentient Ronald Reagan who ruled America a generation ago. Instead, a brand-new Ronald Reagan was cast out of bronze just like the cowboy model with the Stetson hat at the Simi Valley library entrance in order to fit the modern conservative agenda and cover up its flaws.
"The Reagan Cult of Personality is what happens when a political ideology becomes exhausted, when they have nothing to sell the voters and they recourse to a cult of personality for somebody's who's dead," said Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. Reagan's legend took on greater significance when conservatives ran out of new ideas and inspiring leaders at the same time: "That's a canary in a coal mine for the movement. It's what the Democrats did in the '70s and '80s with John F. Kennedy, when every year a younger and more charismatic candidate was going to lead the Democrats out of the wilderness."
Many would argue that Kennedy's presidency has been mythologized, too, as an idyllic Camelot cut down by a hail of bullets in an act that seemed to trigger the violence of the 1960s, the very mayhem that would give rise to the age of Reagan. It is very much like the Reagan myth that we make movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis but don't talk so much about the Bay of Pigs or Kennedy's stumbling 1961 summit with Nikita Khrushchev. However, the legend of JFK is largely attached to his youthful charm as so famously and disastrously cited by the GOP's Dan Quayle in a 1988 vice presidential debate and his astute handling of a crisis in Cuba graver than anything ever faced by the Gipper, and not by Kennedy's forgotten and probably obsolete center-left policies.
That's quite different from the Reagan story line that was launched by a new aggressive breed of conservatives while he was still very much alive, as a tool not just to win elections but to sell a specific ideology to hold the line on new taxes even as the federal deficit soared and stay the course in Iraq even as the American presence seemed to create even more senseless violence. Just like the facts of the Reagan presidency, the fallacies of the Reagan myth are too complicated to sum up in a glib sound bite. Instead, it's a kind of political three-step tango.
Step one involves simply eliminating references to any negative things that took place in America from 1981 to 1989, especially in the White House. That's why you must look hard to find references to the Iran-Contra scandal, which came so close to destroying Reagan's presidency, in the many Reagan hagiographies that have been published in the 2000s and even at the Reagan Library. (Can you imagine Anderson Cooper asking the GOP candidates in that 2008 debate: "President Reagan delivered aid to Nicaraguan rebels even though Congress passed an amendment barring the White House from doing that under what circumstances would you violate the Constitution?") More than twenty years after Reagan's presidency, one must dig hard to learn of his failure to connect with black voters or other minority groups, or that he failed to address issues such as AIDS or homelessness in any meaningful way, or the sense that many had in the late 1980s that America had been overrun by greed.
Step two is to award Reagan more credit than he deserves for good things that happened during his presidency, or, in even more extreme mode, to remember things as taking place when they actually did not. This is certainly true of the two subjects that dominate the Reagan legacy: the economy and the Cold War. As for economic issues, the Reagan mythmakers give credit for the financial turnaround of the 1980s and beyond almost exclusively to his one major tax cut, in 1981; ignore the impact of the long-term business cycle, which was due for a 1980s rebound, and the steep global drop in oil prices; and bypass the fact that the economy actually performed better during the 1990s and the quite unmythologized presidency of Bill Clinton. On the Cold War, most historians believe that the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain collapsed more from their own dead weight than from any pressure applied by the United States. As for reducing the size of government, Reagan said it so many times that many of today's acolytes believe he actually did it.
But step three of the Reagan legacy tango is the trickiest of all. It involves conservatives whitewashing not so much Reagan's bad qualities but some of his better ones because they don't fit the modern agenda of the right wing. That largely involves Reagan's penchant for pragmatism, even on those matters that were most important to him, which stands in sharp contrast to the portrait of a man with the unyielding views that have been attributed to him. As California governor and then as president, Reagan was willing to make sharp turns to get things done whether it was signing the bill on legalized abortion in the Golden State or approving, as president in 1982, what was at the time the largest tax increase in American history, just a year after his much better-known rate cut, or his aggressive negotiations with the same Soviets that he had branded an "evil empire." It's hard to imagine that Reagan would have cut taxes steeply going into wars on terrorism and in Iraq, as his self-proclaimed disciple George W. Bush did, in part because it is hard to imagine Reagan invading Iraq in the first place since Reagan said he believed that military attacks that killed civilians were not a proper response to terrorism.
"Reagan's devotion to certain principles was genuine, but it was coupled with an equally genuine belief in the importance of compromise and an understanding that you had to get the best deal you could under the circumstances," notes Stephen Knott, an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval War College, and who previously ran the Reagan Oral History Project at the University of Virginia. "I'm not sure this part of Reagan's legacy is appreciated by George W. Bush and those Republicans looking for 'another Reagan.' "
But the Reagan myth isn't just a political problem for the GOP. Increasingly, as the idealized Reagan took hold in the American imagination, Democrats seemed to struggle even harder with the question of just who Ronald Reagan was and whether political success going forward depended upon undercutting Reagan's legend, simply ignoring it, or embracing all or part of it. That's why it was a political bombshell when Senator Barack Obama made it clear in early 2008 that Reaganism was playing some role in his thinking as he mapped out his own more progressive route to the White House but the specifics of what Obama was getting at were open to debate.
"Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama told the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal in January 2008. Seeking to elaborate, the Democratic senator said that "we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing." Obama's comments caused a scramble among the Democrats: Was the presidential front-runner simply praising the political style of the twice-elected Republican, or was his commen also intended to voice support for some of Reagan's policy ideas? Obama advisors stressed the former that he was merely seeking to remind voters of Reagan's "hope and optimism."
Obama's statements seemed to flummox the Democrats in 2008 almost as much as Reagan himself did circa 1984. John Edwards, the for mer North Carolina senator who was appealing to the party's more progressive wing in those early primaries, said Reagan "openly did extraordinary damage to the middle class and working people, created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day...I can promise you this: this president will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change."
And yet just a couple of weeks later, it was Edwards who was gone from the presidential race, and Obama who was soldiering on leaving the unanswered questions of whether even a progressive Democrat in the White House could tackle not just the immediate problems of Iraq, record-high gasoline prices, and a skyrocketing federal debt but also the more ominous issues of world energy supply and climate change, without doing so under the deepening shadow of the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
How did we get to this point in American politics? It would be easy to give all the credit to the Ronald Reagan myth machine, to the neoconservatives and tax-warriors-turned-lobbyists, for trying to create one long Ronald Reagan Boulevard from sea to shining sea. But no myth would be possible without the man. And if there was ever a man who instinctively knew how to write that screenplay who rode in from Hollywood to create a new kind of presidency that would focus on strong words and cinematic images that would last long after people forgot the policies sometimes loosely attached to them it was Ronald Wilson Reagan. Copyright © 2009 by Will Bunch