I discussed Reagan' legacy last year in this review of two books about his presidency, and Sunday's centennial of his birth was the occasion for another round of media mythologizing. Reagan's fictional character dominated many recollections, and "Republicans' unadulterated worship of Reagan ... send[s] a message that Reagan was successful in everything he did:"
So if you remember him as a popular, consistent president who accomplished everything he wanted to, then it just feels right to assert that he convinced Americans to hate government. It feels so right, you don't even bother to check whether it's true.
Reagan's addled recollections have been justifiably mocked, as when he dissembled about his administration's illegal Iran/Contra black-ops program, demonstrating a preference for wishful thinking over reality:
"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true; but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not." (Iran/Contra speech, 4 March 1987)
His supporters' substitution of emotions for facts is equally pernicious, as their cutesy names for our fortieth president indicate: Dutch, the Gipper, the Great Communicator, and--most tellingly--lauding him as the Teflon President. It takes a profound ideological blindness for conservatives to ignore the dark reality behind the stage-managed sunniness of the Reagan era, but their message discipline is amazing in both its breadth and tenacity. Some of Reagan's more deluded supporters have called him "one of the greatest presidents in the history of this nation" who is "almost universally regarded as 'Rushmore ready'."
Reagan's detractors have coined a few nicknames, too, most of them more imaginative than the cartoonish Ronnie Raygun who spouted bellicose bluster about evil empires and Star Wars missile shields. Clark Clifford famously referred to Reagan as an "amiable dunce," and the GOP sycophants have had their adoration for Saint Ronnie mocked as his many failures were enumerated under the titles the Reagan Ruins, the Reagan Nightmare, or Reagan's darker legacy. Our 40th president was also referred to as RINO Reagan and "the father of the Republican Party's fiscal irresponsibility," pointing toward his triple legacy as king of debt, tax-cut mythmaker, and underminer of trust in government. Robert Parry noted that Reagan was an enabler of atrocities, particularly in South America, and pointed out that:
[T]he true measure of a president shouldn't be his style or how he made us feel but rather what he did with his extraordinary power, what were the consequences for real people, either for good or ill.
"Real" is a word that Reagan's disciples have shied away from using, preferring to ignore inconvenient facts in the shadows cast by Hollywood's glare. Dean Baker explained the real effects of Reaganomics, Daily Kos wrote about Remembering the Real Reagan, noting that his election "is the central and enduring tragedy of our age." Paul Waldman looked at The Real Reagan Legacy, ThinkProgress discussed The Real Ronald Reagan, and Salon's multi-part series The Real Reagan offered "a critical, but fair and respectful, exploration of the real Ronald Reagan."
Rick Moran wrote at The Moderate Voice that "Even from the vengeful, hateful left, there has been a grudging acknowledgment of his gifts." Michael Kinsley answered the "Can't you say anything nice?" question this way:
Oh, sure. He was a decent, well-meaning person and a patriot. But he was intellectually lazy. He believed what he wanted to believe, and his lasting legacy is to have trained the American people in the same bad habit. He lived in a world where taxes pay for themselves, government gets smaller by cutting "waste, fraud and abuse," nuclear missiles can be stopped by an invisible shield and so on. Then he left us, totally unprepared, to deal with the world as it really is.
Republicans had their hagiographic celebration, but now the party's over...and just as with the Eighties, someone has to clean up the mess that they've left behind.
some more links:
ThinkProgress listed 10 Things Conservatives Don't Want You to Know About Ronald Reagan
DailyKos lists some of the Reagan administration's 138 investigations, indictments, and convictions--easily making it the most corrupt administration of the 20th century
Will (Tear Down This Myth) Bunch listed five myths about Reagan, observing that "much of what today's voters think they know about the 40th president is more myth than reality, misconceptions resulting from the passage of time or from calculated attempts to rebuild or remake Reagan's legacy."
I highly recommend a visit to Mock, Paper, Scissors for The Feast of Saint Ronnie and more truth-telling about the Reagan era