Bunch, Will. Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future (New York: Free Press, 2009)
I originally wrote that Reagan was "nowhere near as bad as Bush," but then reconsidered that position--at least provisionally. These two books--Will Bunch's Tear Down This Myth and William Kleinknecht's The Man Who Sold the World--make the case that Reagan belongs, if not at the bottom of the list, at least much nearer to it than GOP propagandists would prefer. Allen Barra at TruthDig observes that:
Bunch sees Reagan primarily as a pragmatist whose image has been hijacked by a neoconservative cabal while Kleinknecht sees Reagan himself as the betrayer of what once was regarded as genuine conservatism.
The fallacies surrounding Reagan's tax-cutting, government-is-the-problem rhetoric come in for early criticism from Bunch. After listing Reagan's tax increases (Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, Highway Revenue Act of 1982, Social Security Amendments of 1983, Deficit Reduction Act of 1984, Tax Reform Act of 1986), he observes:
Bruce Bartlett, the leading defender of the Reagan tax legacy, conceded in a 2003 article in National Review [online here] the stubborn facts that Reagan raised taxes every single year of his presidency except for his all-important first year in the Oval Office and his last, 1988, when his vice president, George H.W. Bush, was locked in what looked like a close race to succeed him. (pp. 58-9)
Contrary to the media myths of Reagan as "one of the most popular presidents in history" and "the most popular president ever to leave office" (p. 98), Bunch notes that:
FDR was more popular right before his death--not surprising with America on the brink of victory in World War II--but also the much-maligned Clinton had better poll numbers leaving office than Reagan. (p. 98)
The majority of voters disagreed with Ronald Reagan on most of the major issues facing America, from the time he took the oath of office until the day he left. (p. 104)
The cult-of-personality, president-I'd-like-to-have-a-beer-with mentality has served us rather poorly in the decades since, hasn't it? Bunch addresses Reagan's real legacy--after telling the story of the Grover Norquist's fabled Reagan Legacy Project--by noting that:
The GOP front-runner for 2000 had made it very clear to the American public: he wanted to be Ronald Reagan in the worst way.
This is exactly what would happen. (p. 162)
Reagan's untimely death during the election Summer of 2004 makes me wonder about the likelihood of a Bush victory without the hyper-emotional appeals of Operation Serenade's funeral extravaganzas and the flood of misty-eyed hagiographies. Even today, that misty emotionalism prevents a clear-eyed of Reaganism for many:
...the biggest obstacle to a more honest reappraisal of the Reagan presidency is even more complicated, and that is a new, more reality-based approach to our modern history from the American news media. Arguably, the book you are reading right now is a tiny step in that direction... (p. 223)
In the aftermath of the GOP's 2006 electoral defeat, George Will wrote about the "nostalgia for Ronald Reagan has become for many conservatives a substitute for thinking." This "mental paralysis," as Will called it, remains endemic in today's moribund GOP. Bunch ends on a note of hope:
Someday, the Oval Office will be home to a president who is not only a Great Communicator but also a visionary leader, who will appeal to this nation's spirit but with an agenda grounded in reality and with a common sense of mission, propelling citizens in the direction we want to go, toward a society that is prosperous but also fair, with opportunity once again for all Americans. (pp. 228-9)
Kleinknecht, William. The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America (New York: Nation Books, 2009)
Kleinknecht's focus on domestic policy in The Man Who Sold the World is, if anything, more devastating to the Reagan myth than the international follies epitomized by the Iran-Contra fiasco. He notes that "No one--certainly not the mainstream media--seems to have noticed the Reagan's diagnosis of our economic problems has been debunked in its entirety, and not just be Keynesian economics" (pp. xvi-xvii, Introduction):
With his incessant claim that reducing government intervention in the economy would return us to the good times of the midcentury, Reagan was conveniently forgetting that America's prosperity had reached its highest levels at a time when government activism--the legacy of Progressivism and the New Deal--was also at its peak. America came out of World War II with the common man a hero, the welfare state firmly ensconced, and the influence of labor unions at an all-time high. And yet it was also a period of high capital formation, rising profits, rising productivity, and increasing living standards for even the poor and the middle class. (p. xix, Introduction)
(Not to mention that the top marginal income tax rates were much higher, as well; from 1932-1980, they ranged from 63% all the way up to 94%--in other words, at least twice today's top rate of 35%.)
Reagan's aw-shucks, golly-gee, there-you-go-again folksiness may have charmed (some of) America for a time, but the GOP-colored glasses no longer blind us to the reality of Reaganomics. Although "The bitter legacy of Reaganism...is all around us [...] ...the controversy that once surrounded Reagan seems to have been banished from our public discourse." (p. ix, Introduction) Kleinknecht comes to the conclusion that "the image of Ronald Reagan as a man who never wavered from the small-town values that he absorbed during a simpler, more wholesome period in American history is far off the mark:"
His values were actually quite malleable. He shifted his core beliefs depending on what he became convinced was in his own self-interest at the moment. He was a leftist until he felt duped by Hollywood communists and became an FBI informant. He was a committed labor leader until his own interests required self-serving deals with management. He was a New Dealer while the philosophy was benefiting him personally, but switched to Republicanism when the social welfare tab was coming out of his taxes. (p. 51)
Kleinknecht refers to Reaganomics as "the coup d'état that the rich were staging in Washington" (p. 70) and notes that the S&L crisis "worked out well for the new class of robber barons that emerged in the Reagan years:"
A small group of rich business types went on a spending spree, and the public picked up the $150-billion tab. Privatize the wealth and socialize the risk. That was the new ethos in the post-Reagan era. (p. 119)
He observes that "Reagan achieved deregulation merely by ordering the bureaucracy to stop enforcing the regulations that already existed and by filling the government's ranks with people who had little inclination to interfere with the private sector" (p. 107) and asks:
Where was the Securities and Exchange Commission while this free-for-all on Wall Street was reshaping the corporate map? Where were the Federal Regulatory Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department Antitrust Division, and a host of other deferral regulatory agencies whose job it is to protect citizens from corporate thievery? They were fulfilling the promise of Reagan and his Millionaire Backers. They were letting the market work its magic. (p. 154)
The thieves were thick inside the Reagan administration as well, although this fact received little comment outside of a series of Doonesbury's "Sleaze on Parade" cartoons in April 1986:
By the end of Reagan's two terms, 138 members of his administration had been convicted, indicted, or investigated for criminal activity, a record of graft that far surpassed even the Nixon, Harding, and Grant administrations, Reagan's closest competitors in the sweepstakes for the most corrupt presidency. (p. 193)
A prime example is the series of scandals at the Department of Housing and Urban Development:
HUD was a branch of government that Reagan and his aides would just as soon have seen disappear. But they could not get away with closing down such a large federal agency, so they did the next best thing: by allowing it to be plundered and neglected to such an unconscionable degree, they ensured it would have no effectiveness and lose its already anemic constituency. (p. 202)
As Wikipedia reminds us, the various HUD scandals resulted in six convictions, including James Watt (Reagan's Secretary of the Interior) and two assistant HUD Secretaries. The rich (and well-connected) got richer--except when they got caught--and the rest got nothing. The bifurcated effects of Reaganized government are also seen in other areas besides corruption and taxation:
Reagan pledged to take government off the backs of the people, but for many Americans, that government is more intrusive than ever. Its emissaries are searching our children at school, stopping and questioning us at roadway checkpoints, rummaging through our bank accounts, gathering profiles of us in cyberspace, collecting samples of our urine, spying on us with cameras mounted in public spaces, and putting record numbers of us behind bars.
Some Americans are privileged enough not to notice these harshest aspects of the new law-and-order regime. Dogs tend to search schools in poor and working-class school districts while the children of the affluent go unmolested. Cameras don't watch over the public in affluent Ridgewood, New Jersey; they hang on telephone poles in working-class Harrison. [...] We treat the Constitution as a sacred text in the classroom and then, through these pointless exercises, teach the students that in real life it is meaningless. (pp. 229-230)
Reagan was a giant of modern politics, but one whose effect on the body politic is far less salutary than his hagiographers would have us believe.
The Age of Reagan will not be erased by empty promises of change followed by business as usual. It will have passed only when our leaders regain a sense of national purpose and contemplate real public investment in science, infrastructure, education, and job training--investment in the people of America. Human investment means not just education and health care but also increases in the minimum wage and government strategies to promote unionization in the service and manufacturing sectors.
It seems vaguely utopian to speak in such terms, but that only shows how far Reagan pushed the country to the right. Not long ago these were the enunciated policies of the federal government, fully accepted by centrist politicians, not just those on the left. Reagan's demagoguery was so skillful that these policies were virtually banished from public life. (pp. 267-268)
We may have begun to emerge from the long, dark shadow cast by his presidency, but the bills for his borrow-and-spend conservative economics will be with us for generations. For a president of Reagan's stature, no less than three Quotes of the Day will do:
Mark Hertsgaard noted in On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency that:
The American news media remained remarkably blasé in the face of the seemingly endless stream of irrational or otherwise baseless claims flowing from Washington. Upon Reagan's ascension to power in 1981, the press quickly settled into a posture of accommodating passivity from which it never completely arose. (p. 343)
American Scholar's Matthew Dallek writes that Reagan is "Not Ready for Mt. Rushmore," no matter what the Legacy-mongers would have us believe. In "reconciling the myth of Ronald Reagan with the reality," he observes that "The 20-year consensus about Reagan's achievements is slowly beginning to unravel:"
...it's become increasingly clear that his policies and politics had a more damaging economic, social, and political impact than has been acknowledged. For all of his impressive political achievements, Reagan was an angrier, more divisive figure than he is remembered as being, and at least some of Bush's biggest failures are traceable to Reagan's controversial approach to tax cuts, business regulation, national security, and social issues.
Senator Al Franken's Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot has a great riff after referring to Bill Clinton as "The Greatest President of the Twentieth Century:"
I know you're thinking, "Wait a minute, Al. Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest president of the century." And I suppose an argument could be made for FDR. Or Truman, I guess. Or Wilson, Kennedy, or Johnson. Or the other Roosevelt, if you're a Republican. Or Reagan, if you're a fucking idiot. (p. 246)
Tear Down This Myth excerpts are at AlterNet and Salon, with a book salon at FDL.
Robert Scheer describes "Reagan's Socialist Legacy" at The Nation