Fascinating book, really thorough. (There are things in here I didn't even know, and I'm more informed about Reagan than the average bear.) The Reagan myth is so large, so unquestioned that he even gets credit for the things he didn't do: Star Wars! Stopped the Cold War! Made the economy hum like a top! (If you have a Reagan-loving in-law, this is the book you want to read before your next family get-together.)
From the first chapter:
[...] The Reagan myth isn’t just a political problem for the GOP. Increasingly, as the idealized Reagan took hold in the American imagination, Democrats seemed to struggle even harder with the question of just who was Ronald Reagan – and whether political success going forward depended upon undercutting Reagan’s legend, simply ignoring it, or embracing all or part of it. That’s why it was a political bombshell when Sen. Barack Obama made it clear in early 2008 that Reaganism was playing some role in his thinking as he mapped out his own more progressive route to the White House – but the specifics of what Obama was getting at were open to debate.
"Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama told the editorial board of the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal in January 2008. Seeking to elaborate, the Democratic senator said that "[w]e want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing." Obama’s comments caused a scramble among his Democrats: Was the presidential frontrunner simply praising the political style of the twice-elected Republican, or was his comment also intended to voice support for some of Reagan’s policy ideas? Obama advisors stressed the former – that he was merely seeking to remind voters of Reagan’s “hope and optimism.”
Obama’s statements seemed to flummox the Democrats in 2008 almost as much as Reagan himself did circa 1984. John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who was appealing to the party’s more progressive wing in those early primaries, said Reagan “openly did extraordinary damage to the middle class and working people, created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day…I can promise you this: this president will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change."
And yet just a couple of weeks later, it was Edwards who was gone from the presidential race, and Obama who was soldiering on – leaving the unanswered questions of whether even a progressive Democrat in the White House could tackle not just the immediate problems of Iraq, record-high gasoline prices, a skyrocketing federal debt but the more ominous issues of world energy supply and climate change without doing so under the deepening shadow of the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
How did we get to this point in American politics? It would be easy to give all the credit to the Ronald Reagan myth machine, to the neo-conservatives and tax-warriors-turned-lobbyists behind the move to seemingly pave over and rename one long Ronald Reagan Boulevard from sea to shining sea. But no myth would be possible without the man. And if there was ever a man who instinctively knew how to write that screenplay – who rode in from Hollywood to create a new kind of presidency that would focus on strong words and cinematic images that would last long after people forgot the policies sometimes loosely attached to them – it was Ronald Wilson Reagan.