By Paul Davies, Deputy Editorial Page Editor
Posted on Sun, Feb. 6, 2011
In an attempt to point to his many accomplishments, Ronald Reagan referenced John Adams, who said, “Facts are stubborn things.” But Reagan, then 77 years old, muffed the line and said that “facts are stupid things.”
Reagan’s supporters have never let facts get in the way of a good story. In many ways, his presidency was about telling an uplifting story of good over evil that was easy to understand and resonated with middle America.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth Sunday, Life magazine published a special edition that described the 40th president as the “mythic embodiment of all that was best about America, at a time when Americans perhaps needed it most.”
The operative word is mythic. The reality is that Reagan’s presidency was at best a mixed bag. If anything, he is one of the most overrated presidents.
Reagan’s presidency was really a triumph of style over substance. He was not known for his brainpower. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously remarked, “Poor dear, there’s nothing between his ears.”
But the irony is the B-movie actor became a star in real life, thanks to good timing, a compelling script, and Hollywood stage crafting.
Reagan’s optimism (“Morning in America”) and grandfatherly delivery (“There you go again”) provided the perfect antidote to the American malaise that had set in after the tumult of the 1960s, Watergate, high inflation, unemployment, and the Iran hostage crisis, which engulfed Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
Reagan sure looked the part of a great American hero in his white cowboy hat, chopping wood on his California ranch. It made for good, wholesome TV, brought to you by the Great Communicator via a teleprompter.
In fact, the Reagan revolutionaries were masters at coming up with snappy catchphrases that helped burnish his image as a strong leader standing up to bad guys. Reagan took on drug dealers (“Just say no”) and called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” In his most famous speech, at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany, Reagan urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
Reagan’s backers point to this and other efforts as evidence that he ended the Cold War. But communism imploded mainly of its own devices. Reagan may have helped hasten the Soviet Union’s collapse with a costly peacetime military buildup, but the failures of communism are what killed communism.
The other big fallacy surrounds Reagan’s domestic policy. Supporters talk about how Reagan cut taxes and shrank government. But the tax cuts mainly benefited the very wealthy. There were supposed to be some trickle-down economic benefits, but the rising tide didn’t lift all the boats, just the yachts.
And the deficit soared. No worries for Reagan, who said it was “big enough to take care of itself.”
The savings-and-loan crisis also happened on Reagan’s watch, thanks in part to deregulation – the one area of government that was reduced.
Even worse, many of Reagan’s old hands returned to power under George W. Bush and pushed the same failed policies. No surprise, the same thing happened again: Tax cuts for the very wealthy and increased federal spending led to a ballooning deficit.
As in the S&L crisis, lack of oversight during the Bush years enabled the subprime-mortgage crisis to mushroom, leading to the 2008 financial collapse and bailouts.
On foreign policy, the Reagan administration funded anti-Soviet Islamic militants in Afghanistan who reemerged later in the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And, of course, there was the Iran-contra scandal, in which Reagan administration officials secretly sold arms to sworn enemy Iran in return for the release of hostages and diverted millions to fund contra guerrillas fighting in Nicaragua.
The clandestine deal was carried out by high-level administration officials even though Iran was the subject of an arms embargo and Congress had prohibited funding of the contras. Reagan initially denied trading weapons for hostages but later admitted it.
Over Reagan’s two terms, scores of administration officials were convicted, indicted, or investigated for criminal misconduct. So much for wholesome American values.
In the late 1990s, backers of the Gipper launched the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project with the aim of getting airports, buildings, and roads named after him and bolstering his image as one of the greatest presidents. It’s really an extension of the same public-relations campaign that was waged while Reagan was president.
The sad fact is such efforts work today in America, where many citizens are uninformed, don’t care, and know more about American Idol winners than elected leaders.
John Ford’s classic Western movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has a line that perfectly sums up the telling and retelling of the Reagan years: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”