Tuesday, June 08, 2004

THE REAL RONALD REAGAN. Two good against-the-grain pieces for your consideration. The first, in Salon, by Barry Goldwater biographer Rick Perlstein, is a useful reminder that Reagan was often unpopular during his long political career, and that he was even the object of a substantial recall effort when he was governor of California.

Though Perlstein gives Reagan credit for being more flexible and pragmatic than George W. Bush, he warns against embracing the gauzy image that has increasingly surrounded him during his long decline. Perlstein writes:

It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.

Nowadays, as we grapple with the malevolence of President Bush, it's Reagan we remember as the sensible one. At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, let memory at least acknowledge that there was much about Reagan that was not so sensible.

The second, by Joshua Green, appeared in the Washington Monthly in January 2003, but it seems especially pertinent now. Green's take on Reagan is somewhat different from Perlstein's: according to Green (now at the Atlantic Monthly), Reagan really was something of a closet moderate, especially after the bellicose first two years of his presidency. Here's the heart of Green's argument:

Reagan is, to be sure, one of the most conservative presidents in U.S. history and will certainly be remembered as such. His record on the environment, defense, and economic policy is very much in line with its portrayal. But he entered office as an ideologue who promised a conservative revolution, vowing to slash the size of government, radically scale back entitlements, and deploy the powers of the presidency in pursuit of socially and culturally conservative goals. That he essentially failed in this mission hasn't stopped partisan biographers from pretending otherwise. (Noonan writes of his 1980 campaign pledges: "Done, done, done, done, done, done, and done. Every bit of it.")

A sober review of Reagan's presidency doesn't yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today. Federal government expanded on his watch. The conservative desire to outlaw abortion was never seriously pursued. Reagan broke with the hardliners in his administration and compromised with the Soviets on arms control. His assault on entitlements never materialized; instead he saved Social Security in 1983. And he repeatedly ignored the fundamental conservative dogma that taxes should never be raised.

Trouble is, Green continues, Reagan's hagiographers on the right have airbrushed out the non-conservative parts of his record in order to turn him into a right-wing icon - and a weapon to use against the rest of us. He writes: "As with other conservative media efforts - Rush Limbaugh, Fox News Channel, The Washington Times - the purpose of the Reagan legacy project is not to deliver accuracy, but enhance political leverage."

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