The Reagan Mythology: It Has Little To Do With The Man

It was pretty hard this weekend to find anything but warm, gushing encomiums to Ronald Reagan on his 100th birthday anywhere on the teevee -- particularly at Fox, where the fawning coverage doubled as an opportunity to bash President Obama.



[H/t commenter Mugsy]

It was pretty hard this weekend to find anything but warm, gushing encomiums to Ronald Reagan on his 100th birthday anywhere on the teevee -- particularly at Fox, where the fawning coverage doubled as an opportunity to bash President Obama. The one exception was this brief report from ABC News' Jake Tapper.

While far from complete, it at least covers some of the more significant differences between the real president that Ronald Reagan was and the fake myths about him that have become enmeshed in right-wing conventional wisdom since -- and thus embedded as truth for mainstream media.

But really, this only points to the larger truth about this whole weekend's worth of praise for Reagan, which included a special halftime program at the Super Bowl, fergawdsake. As Charles Pierce adroitly observes:

By way of historical comparison, the centennial of Franklin D. Roosevelt's birth took place in 1982. The halftime entertainment at that year's Super Bowl -- the telecast not yet having been blown up to 96.5 hours -- consisted of Up With People singing a medley of Motown hits. Somewhere between those two events is something that says a great deal about this nation, not much of it encouraging. Maybe the NFLPA should change its acronym to PATCO and eliminate all confusion.

Much as Reagan himself was during his presidency, his image is now functionally just a stand-in for conservative-movement ideology. Whatever conservatives need him to be now, that's what the Reagan Myth stands for -- even though, as Jon Perr points out, today's Tea Partiers would call Reagan a RINO.

And that's why, as Will Bunch explores at length in his great book, Tear Down This Myth, there has evolved in fact a cottage industry around the mythologization of Ronald Reagan -- naming airports and boulevards and buildings after him, constantly burnishing his achievements, constantly celebrating various Reagan anniversaries, including slightly odd ones like his 100th birthday. This industry exists not to much to celebrate Reagan the actual president, but to embed conservative mythology in the nation's political landscape -- even after its disastrous consequences are made manifest:

There has always been a place for mythology in American democracy – the hulking granite edifices of the Capitol Mall in Washington are a powerful testament to that – but this nation has arguably never seen the kind of bold, crudely calculated and ideologically driven legend-manufacturing as has taken place with Ronald Reagan. It is a myth machine that has been spectacularly successful, launched in the mid-1990s when the conservative brand was at low ebb.The docudrama version of the Gipper’s life story, successfully sold to the American public, helped to keep united and refuel a right-wing movement that consolidated power while citing Reaganism – as separate and apart from the flesh-and-blood Reagan – for misguided policies from lowering taxes in the time of war in Iraq to maintaining that unpopular conflict in a time of increasing bloodshed and questionable gains.

As Bunch recently observed, in recalling the way the so-called liberal media attended to Reagan's funeral on bended knee:

The death of Reagan some six-and-a-half years ago, and the remarkable tenor – not to mention the depth -- of the news coverage, especially on cable TV news channels, marked something of a turning point. It showed the extent to which a vast content-hungry media world – much more extensive than when Reagan was president in the 1980s, when their main concern was the half-hour evening network newscast -- was eager to swallow the manufactured myths about Ronald Reagan, and thus honor what the unnamed TV executive told Hoagland, that “today history is what we say it is.” Any chance for an honest portrayal of Reagan and his presidency – the dangerous overreach of the Iran-contra scandal, the growing embrace of deficit spending (both in Washington and for credit-card-laden consumers), or even the positive idea that his greatest contribution to history was a heartfelt desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons (an idea out of step with modern conservative thinking) – has been tossed down the memory hole for the last decade.

What the American people have been news-fed instead has been an ideology loosely based on Reagan, called Reaganism – a notion that has led to the Tea Party’s hatred of anything involving government and the bogus ideas that taxes can only be cut or that diplomacy with America’s rivals is for wimps. With each passing election, more and more of the electorate is too young to have remembered or experienced the real Ronald Reagan, yet are searching for an idealized president based on these right-wing perpetrated fallacies. Many of the worst aspects of the George W. Bush presidency – more tax cuts for the rich, soaring deficits, and “axis of evil” bluster – were rooted in this legend of a man who wasn’t there.

My own recollection of Reagan was that he destroyed the Republican Party for moderate Republicans such as I was at the time, especially by empowering the Religious Right. It drove people like me out of the GOP, and we've never looked back.

About David Neiwert

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