Everybody Loves Reagan

How a divisive president became an American Idol.

Photograph of Ronald Reagan
Pulling Reagan’s legacy

Anyone who has taken the time to read the script of the two-part miniseries The Reagans, which CBS deep-sixed after much hectoring from the rabid right, will note an irony: For all the attacks on its portrait of Ronald Reagan—painted as something less than Albert Einstein in his intelligence and something less than Albert Schweitzer in his compassion—the program is in fact mild as criticism, silly as politics, and toothless as a weapon in the culture wars (if it were even conceived as such). Judging from this teleplay, no viewer could possibly carry away from it a diminished view of Reagan’s presidency, for the simple reason that it barely deals with the substance of his presidency at all.

Much of the script is given over to cornball incidents from the Reagan family soap opera. Whole scenes exhume forgotten tabloid fare such as Patti Reagan telling her mother, “I got my tubes tied. … I’ll be damned if I bring any kids into this world,” or Ron Jr., a dancer, coping with insinuations of his homosexuality. To be sure, these episodes are not always flattering to the Reagans, especially to Nancy, who comes off as stereotypically shrewish. But Ronnie emerges, to the degree that he figures in these scenes, as a cheery, loving dad. Amid such bathos, most substantive issues of the presidency are either omitted altogether or dealt with cursorily. The script dispatches the landmark 1981 tax cuts with a mere glimpse of newspaper headline. Homelessness is treated by a shot of three protesters bearing anti-Reagan placards outside the White House gates.

In fairness to the conservatives’ gripes, Reagan is rendered in classic space cadet form. He relies on aides to brief him on the most elementary matters. (“This is Nicaragua,” CIA chief William Casey tells him. “These are the Contras. They’re fighting to overthrow the Nicaraguan dictator. … “) He mixes up Hollywood movies and reality, as of course he did in real life. And Iran-Contra, not inappropriately, is featured prominently. But in the end, the general inanity of the whole miniseries is enough to keep it from being deployed either for or against Reagan’s record. The only ones who should take offense are defenders of quality network television.

All of which points to a more important conclusion to be drawn from last week’s donnybrook. That this innocent treatment of Reagan should elicit the ire it did shows one thing above all: how successful the Reaganauts have recently been in goosing his reputation beyond recognition. It is a second irony of the recent row that the complaints about Reagan-bashing come at a time when the former president has never been more popular or impervious to criticism. America of late has not only been bathing Reagan in a warm glow but forgetting just how controversial—and at many points, how unpopular—he really was.

Every president’s reputation fluctuates after he leaves office. Harry Truman quit the presidency with a 32 percent approval rating and is now roundly saluted. But people noticed Truman’s rehabilitation, whereas Reagan’s has occurred imperceptibly over the last few years. Most people would be surprised to hear that in 1992, significantly more people viewed his presidency unfavorably than favorably—and that his approval ratings stayed in the middling range until about 1999.

This fall marks the high-water mark in the Reagan comeback bid. Along with the miniseries, two new collections of his letters have appeared, intended (in the spirit of a 2001 anthology of his radio-speech drafts, In His Own Hand) to dispel the airhead image of liberal lore. In another new book, a former speechwriter has written the idolatrous How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. Even Reagan’s longtime Boswell, Lou Cannon, has gotten into the game, with a fair-minded but strikingly admiring portrait of his subject’s pre-presidential years, Governor Reagan.

All these efforts come on the heels of years of lobbying to permanently enshrine a mythic image of the former president. The Reagan Legacy Project, founded by antitax zealot Grover Norquist, scored a coup in 1998 by renaming Washington National Airport for its hero (although everyone still calls it “National”). The outfit is now hoping to remove Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill to make room for Reagan’s visage and to build a Reagan Memorial on the Washington Mall, despite a law barring the erection of any monument there until a quarter century after its namesake’s death—a law signed in 1986 by President Reagan.

The current love-in stems from more than conservative cheerleading. It has received unintentional help from many of the president’s liberal biographers—Frances FitzGerald, author of Way Out There in the Blue, being the most recent—who persist in denigrating his achievements as nothing but public relations. And it probably owes its strength mostly to the 92-year-old’s sad, senescent condition. Afflicted with Alzheimer’s and unable to appreciate much of what goes on around him, Reagan lives in a twilight limbo, arousing the kind of sympathy normally associated with the deceased.

Whatever its causes, the Reagan celebration obscures the divisiveness that followed him during most of his public life. As Tim Noah has written, many traits of Reagan’s that the CBS show was censured for showing—mainly, his intellectual deficiencies—were once routinely acknowledged, even by close aides. Furthermore, for most of Reagan’s career whole segments of the public—often majorities—looked upon him with dismay, scorn, or disapproval. We forget that only in the years just preceding and following his landslide 1984 re-election did Reagan enjoy truly wide popularity. In the first and last phases of his presidency he rarely won approval from a sizable public majority.

Consider the early years. As Elliot King and Michael Schudson pointed out in a classic Columbia Journalism Review article, for the first 24 months of Reagan’s first term he was one of the least popular presidents of recent times. At the end of his first year in office, he was less popular than were Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, and Dwight Eisenhower (his four predecessors elected into the presidency) at the end of their first years. At the end of his second year, he posted only a 37 percent job-approval rating from Gallup, again lower than the four elected predecessors.

The middle years of Reagan’s presidency did see a rebound in his fortunes, fueled by a rebound in the economy, and into late 1986 he commanded high (though never astronomical) approval ratings. But with the revelation of the Iran-Contra scandal, his popularity plummeted, not to recover until his administration’s tail end, when it was buoyed by farewells and retrospectives. (In February 1987, for example, 53 percent of the public disapproved of Reagan’s performance while just 40 percent approved.)

For most of his career, Reagan took bold and provocative (and often wrongheaded) positions. For that boldness, he elicited affection but also distrust and even hatred, and not just from a small band of liberals in Hollywood. By airbrushing out those qualities that made Reagan controversial, by trying to turn him into a beloved George Washington-like icon, his boosters are doing him a disservice. In forsaking insight into the antipathy he often engendered, they seek to render him a sunny, universally adored, wholly benign, and two-dimensional figurehead—a portrait that, even more than this idiotic docudrama, would utterly conceal for posterity the reasons that Ronald Reagan mattered.