During crises and other shared public experiences, the news media often stop worrying about their mission to tell the truth. Instead, they take on the role of national rabbi or shaman, fostering a collective sense of good feeling by recounting stories and myths we wish to hear. Since Ronald Reagan’s death, the media have chosen mostly to do just that, sugar-coating his life and career rather than grappling with his difficult legacy. Herewith, then, some myths about Reagan now being bruited about and why they don’t do justice to the man’s complexity.
Myth No. 1: Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” owed his success mainly to his facility with television and public relations. From his first forays into politics, observers hailed Reagan for his undeniable skill in front of the camera. His acting talent, though never much admired when he was actually an actor, allowed him to master the televised speech and the nightly news clip. A myth thus took hold that Reagan embodied the triumph of style over substance, image over reality.
The myth was suited to the period when television became central to politics. It flattered aides such as Michael Deaver and David Gergen, who received credit for masterminding his generally favorable coverage. Above all, it comforted Reagan’s liberal opponents, who could reassure themselves that the public didn’t really support his conservative policies and had simply been duped by Hollywood showmanship.
Reagan, however, promised—and largely delivered—substantive policies that a majority of the electorate (at least come election time) desired. He may not have fulfilled his pledge to radically shrink the overall size of government, as Tim Noah has noted, but he reasserted American military prowess, led a backlash against liberal permissiveness, and pruned social services that many middle-class voters had no wish to keep supporting. Even many people ill-served by Reaganomics supported him, not because they were fooled by clever image-making but because he both articulated their conservative values and enacted policies that moved the country rightward.
Myth No. 2: Reagan was a uniter, not a divider. Reagan’s tenure is being depicted as a brief moment of national unity before the advent of today’s strident partisanship. In fact, apart from Richard Nixon, it’s hard to think of a more divisive president of the 20th century. As I’ve noted, Reagan was, during his first two years, one of the least-liked presidents of the postwar age. The festering economic doldrums, the worsening Cold War tensions, and doubts about his temperament conspired to make him less popular than Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and even Carter were at comparable points in their terms. Nor was Reagan’s second term free of strife. Starting in 1986, the Iran-Contra scandal revived widespread criticism of his leadership—including calls for his impeachment—and his poll ratings went into free fall.
To be sure, from 1984 to 1986, a surging economy, a revival of patriotism, and Reagan’s skillful appeals to disillusioned Democrats enhanced his image and ensured his landslide re-election. Even then, however, the intense dislike that Reagan engendered rivaled the most feverish Clinton-hating or Bush-hating of later years. If his critics bear some blame for wallowing in the demonology, it was Reagan himself who polarized the country through his actions: aligning himself with the Christian Right; playing to racist sentiments by launching his 1980 campaign in Neshoba County, Miss.; nominating Robert Bork to the Supreme Court; appointing as attorney general the ethically challenged Edwin Meese; and so on. Indeed, by stoking feelings of resentment on both left and right, Reagan did probably more than anyone to sow the social discord that so deeply divides our fifty-fifty nation.
Myth No. 3: Reagan was an incorrigible optimist. Or, as we’ve been hearing, his sunny disposition made him impossible to dislike. This is more a half-truth than a whole lie. Certainly, Reagan charmed political antagonists like Tip O’Neill. His morning-in-America campaign tapped into a public sense of hope. And he could deploy humor brilliantly. But Reagan also possessed an ugly mean streak. It was evident back when, as California governor, he warned student protesters, “If there has to be a bloodbath, then let’s get it over with.” Anyone who has watched the replays of Reagan saying, “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green,” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” can see the manifest ferocity that was as crucial to Reagan’s persona as his self-effacing grin.
Reagan also mobilized his constituents with fear and resentment alongside his optimism. He fueled anxieties about a Soviet threat that he exaggerated, ginned up bitterness toward welfare queens whose stories he concocted, and played to scorn for liberals whom he called soft on crime. Most important, many of his signature presidential actions, such as firing the air-traffic controllers in 1981, won admiration precisely because of their “meanness”—or, if you prefer, their “toughness.” Reagan would never have succeeded without this strain of mercilessness to balance his genial side.
Myth No. 4: Reagan restored faith in government and the presidency. This claim is as bizarre as it is common in the recent Reagan encomiums—bizarre because people still don’t trust government (even after Sept. 11, which did boost public confidence in the state somewhat). Polls show that levels of trust did edge upward between 1980 and 1984—probably a result of the economic rebound—before falling again by 1988. But Reagan never restored confidence to the levels of the 1950s and 1960s, nor did he reverse the general decline, which in fact resumed after the uptick of his first term. Long after his departure from office, journalists and political scientists have continued to study the problems of depressed voter turnout and rampant political apathy. That candidates of both parties now routinely run against Washington further shows that it is an enduring cynicism toward government and politicians, not a renewed faith in them, that has been central to Reagan’s legacy.
Myth No. 5: Reagan’s get-tough policy with the Soviet Union brought about the end of the Cold War. Historians will be debating this one for some time, but the conventional wisdom—that Reagan, by building up the military and spouting feisty Cold War speeches, cowed the Soviet Union into submission—compresses all of Reagan’s eight years into one brief moment. Reagan does deserve credit for bringing U.S.-Soviet hostilities to a close, but not for the simplistic reasons usually cited.
Though few Americans realized it, by the mid-1970s the Soviet system was collapsing. Its aggressive acts of that era, like its invasion of Afghanistan, turned out not to be harbingers of a renewed Red menace but the last gasps of a tottering power. Yet Reagan’s coterie of hawkish advisers foresaw only an unending struggle. Accordingly, in his first term, they cheered Reagan’s provocative rhetoric and counseled hard-line policies—notably his abandonment of high-level summits and arms-control talks—that escalated tensions. But in Reagan’s second term, Secretary of State George Shultz gained the upper hand in the administration (especially after the housecleaning that followed the Iran-Contra scandal). Reagan’s more hawkish advisers had disdained his dreamy rhetoric about peace and abolishing nuclear weapons, but Shultz took it seriously. And both Shultz and Reagan broke from the hawks to embrace Mikhail Gorbachev as a historic reformer. The speed with which they moved from the 1985 Geneva summit to the 1987 INF treaty vouched for the wisdom of Reagan’s turnabout. Thus the irony: Summitry, not missile defense or bellicose speech-making, marked Reagan’s real contribution to ending the Cold War.
These overlooked elements of Reagan’s governance—the substantial conservatism of his policies, which thrilled some Americans while enraging others; the personal toughness and cynicism that complemented his warmth and optimism; his dramatic, if belated, about-face on dealing with the Soviet Union—share a unifying thread: a quiet pragmatism. The practical streak that lay beneath Reagan’s ideological vigor is seldom noted in either his admirers’ panegyrics or his detractors’ philippics. For all the fantasies he confused with reality, for all the Hollywood dreams he inhabited even while governing, Reagan was capable of hard-headed realism. It’s a pity so few commentators about his legacy can muster the same.