Liberals Argue Reagan's Legacy a Media 'Myth'

A belated Gipper backlash?

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Is former President Ronald Reagan's beloved legacy the result of a long-running conservative media campaign? That's the thesis of a new book by journalist Will Bunch, Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy. The title is a play off one of Reagan's most famous lines. Most Americans today think of Reagan as one of America's great presidents, but Bunch suggests that this was never the case during or immediately after Reagan's presidency. He argues that the former president's current popularity is a "myth" put forth by conservatives and adopted by the media. Some liberals, never particularly enchanted with Reagan, are endorsing Bunch's argument. If Reagan was indeed popularized by a conservative media campaign, is this the liberal counter-campaign?

  • How The Myth Happened In an interview with Harper's, Bunch explains "the myth-making machinery created by the likes of Grover Norquist and the mainstream media's willingness to embrace the myth."
For example, in March 1990, some 13 months after Reagan left the Oval Office, Reagan's popularity (59 percent) had dipped below that of Jimmy Carter (62 percent). Two major surveys of historians in the mid-1990s rated Reagan's presidency as below average, not one of the all-time greats.

Ironically, it was those historian rankings that inspired Norquist, the Heritage Foundation, and others to begin what became the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project-the group that aims to name schools, roads, etc., for the Gipper in every U.S. county-and related activities. A key part of that myth-building was the notion that Reagan was largely responsible for "winning the Cold War"-a premise that was rejected, according to a USA Today poll in 1989, when it was actually happening, by Americans crediting Mikhail Gorbachev for the reforms instead. You see the fruits of that effort today; professors-arguably eager to show they're not tools of liberal bias-now rate Reagan as high as the Top Ten of U.S. presidents, and public opinion of the 40th president is fairly high as well.

  • Why The Myth Is Dangerous  Writing in The Huffington Post, Bunch argues that "thanks in part to a deliberate campaign of distortion by modern conservatives, a Reagan myth has been used to justify disastrous spending policies at home and disastrous militarism abroad." He calls the Reagan worship a "powerful philosophy that is loosely based on Reagan's 1980s presidency but distorts or exaggerates the reality of much of what happened in those years." Bunch says, for example, that Reagan is falsely painted as opposed to expanding federal government but that he did exactly that. The myth serves as an excuse to widespread GOP opposition to necessary federal programs.
  • The Real Reagan Legacy  Liberal journalist Joe Conason writes in Buzzflash, "So much that has gone wrong in America--including the subprime mortgage crisis and the meltdown of the financial sector--can be traced directly to Reagan's policies. The financial deregulation launched in the 1980s freed banks and securities firms to squander hundreds of billions of dollars and make a shambles of the economy. Boom-and-bust cycles, obscene CEO salaries, blackouts, drug-company scandals, collapsing bridges, plummeting wages for working people, the flight of U.S. manufacturing abroad--these are all products of Reagan's free-market zealotry and his gutting of the public sector."
  • Reagan Would Be GOP Exile Today  Liberal blogger Paul Rosenberg says that the supposedly beloved Republican would be unwelcome in today's party. In addition to banning torture, raising taxes, and opposing military action in the Middle East, "he actually negotiated with Gorbachev! A real socialist, not a Teabagger one!" Rosenberg explains the vastly different media and cultural environment of the 1980s that allowed Reagan govern so moderately:
The power of liberalism was still strong in the land, and so Reagan, like Nixon before him, operated in an environment of relative rationality and sanity that we can scarcely even imagine today. It was no golden age by any means, but at least there was some sense of brass tacks. Rightwing think tanks were growing rapidly, but not yet totally dominant, Rush Limbaugh's name was utterly unknown, Fox News would not be launched for a decade. It was a different world
  • Democrats Can Co-Opt Reagan Too   Liberal blogger Digby notes that President Obama did it. "I was critical of Obama during the campaign for appropriating Reagan's legacy, but it was because he unfortunately appropriated the anti-government piece of it. But that doesn't mean that liberals shouldn't appropriate those aspects of the legacy that actually benefit them (and hopefully drive conservatives mad) just as Republicans do by cherry picking JFK and Roosevelt's legacy for themselves."
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