No Comment, Six Questions — February 19, 2010, 1:59 pm

Tear Down This Myth: Six Questions for Will Bunch

Will Bunch is an award-winning senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and a senior fellow with Media Matters for America. His latest book, Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy, just out in paperback, examines the process by which Ronald Reagan was subjected to a makeover after his death. I put six questions to Will Bunch about the book.

1. Your book describes itself as a deconstruction of the myth of Ronald Reagan. But how successful has the effort at myth-making been? How does Reagan now stack up among the presidents among historians and the public in general?

bunch

It’s interesting–Reagan’s reputation has risen with both the public and historians the further we get in memory from his actual presidency–which I think is a huge tribute to both the myth-making machinery created by the likes of Grover Norquist and the mainstream media’s willingness to embrace the myth. For example, in March 1990, some 13 months after Reagan left the Oval Office, Reagan’s popularity (59 percent) had dipped below that of Jimmy Carter (62 percent). Two major surveys of historians in the mid-1990s rated Reagan’s presidency as below average, not one of the all-time greats.

Ironically, it was those historian rankings that inspired Norquist, the Heritage Foundation, and others to begin what became the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project–the group that aims to name schools, roads, etc., for the Gipper in every U.S. county–and related activities. A key part of that myth-building was the notion that Reagan was largely responsible for “winning the Cold War”–a premise that was rejected, according to a USA Today poll in 1989, when it was actually happening, by Americans crediting Mikhail Gorbachev for the reforms instead. You see the fruits of that effort today; professors–arguably eager to show they’re not tools of liberal bias–now rate Reagan as high as the Top Ten of U.S. presidents, and public opinion of the 40th president is fairly high as well.

2. Lincoln’s birthday passed last week. It was remarkable that few Republicans paused to notice or to note the importance of the nation’s first Republican president. Is there a relationship between the fading away of Lincoln as a Republican icon and the rise of Ronald Reagan?

As the American electorate grew not only younger but more non-white and more nonreligious than ever before, the early years of Obama’s presidency would have been an ideal time for the Republican Party to reinvent itself, to promote a center-right path to the American dream that would be inclusive for Latinos, African-Americans or other growing blocs of voters, one rooted in economic freedom while moving away from xenophobia and religious intolerance. Instead the GOP retreated within itself, retreated within the myth of Ronald Reagan. When six candidates competed in a public forum to become the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, they were asked to name their favorite Republican president, each one including the eventual winner, Michael Steele, blurted out the name of Ronald Reagan without even a second’s pause to consider the name of Abraham Lincoln, who seemed to hold little appeal to the party’s rabid and increasingly Southern base, or even the hero of D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower, who presided over a remarkable era of American might.

—From Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Free Press. Copyright © 2009 Will Bunch

It was stunning in the 2009 debate between candidates to become chair of the Republican National Committee; as some may recall, all six hopefuls quickly named Reagan as their favorite ex-president, and not one even paid token lip-service to Lincoln. The simplistic answer would be racism – i.e., lack of excitement that Lincoln’s legacy was ending slavery – but I do not think that’s the reason, certainly not overtly. It’s just that Reagan, especially the mythologized version pushed by 21st Century GOPers, relates more to the battles the right is still fighting today, such as the unending “culture wars” against liberal elites and efforts to portray Democrats as weak on defense. That makes him a more potent and more useful symbol than Lincoln, whose remarkable nineteenth-century achievements are more abstract and are generally things that all Americans support.

3. Reagan is often portrayed as an arms hawk who brought down the Soviet Union through aggressive military spending. Is this a tenable claim? Does it take into account his arms control efforts?

The Cold War and Soviet relations are central to the Reagan legacy/myth. The conservative story line is (not surprisingly) a rather simple one: Reagan came in and spent billions on an arms race that bankrupted the Soviets, while his bellicose rhetoric – “evil empire” and “tear down this wall!” – cowed its leaders into allowing the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Reality is more complicated. For one thing, the U.S. arms build-up began under Jimmy Carter and a lot of the spending proved ultimately wasteful. Now that we have access to historical material from the Kremlin, we also know that our most bellicose moves strengthened hardliners at the expense of Soviet reformers. Reagan was right about one thing: Communism was a soon-to-fail economic system, as a new generation of USSR leaders led by Gorbachev also realized. This is why most people at the time, and most historians today, give the lion’s share of credit for ending the Cold War to Gorbachev and to the reform efforts that he initiated, such as glasnost and perestroika.

That said, Reagan deserves praise for realizing that Gorbachev was indeed a different kind of Soviet leader, and for encouraging his reforms. Likewise, people should realize that Reagan’s aversion to nuclear weapons was a deeply held, personal belief which motivated some major accomplishments in arms reduction at the tail end of his presidency. These aspects of the real Reagan – a willingness to negotiate with enemies at the right time, and his real concerns about nuclear weapons – are the parts of Reagan’s legacy that progressives should actually embrace and use in today’s political debates.

4. According to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, former Vice President Cheney claimed during a cabinet meeting that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” How does deficit spending without consequences play in the Reagan legend?

This part of the Reagan legacy is so at odds with the 2010 message from Reagan-worshipping conservatives – especially the right-wing Tea Party faction – of fiscal discipline and deficit reduction that no one can figure out exactly what to do with it. I would argue that there are parallels between Reagan and Obama, in the sense that both presidents came into power during economic crises and both cut taxes and increased spending in their first year, leading to higher deficits. The one difference – and it’s an important one – is that Reagan’s increased spending was for the relatively wasteful area of defense (although it did lead to some job creation) while Obama is making an attempt to target more useful areas, such as infrastructure and alternative energy. The bottom line on Reaganomics is pretty bleak. Yearly deficits soared, and the overall national debt nearly tripled, from $930 billion to about $2.7 trillion, according to the Washington Post.

There was a short-term cost to this and a long-term cost. In the short term, Reagan’s profligate ways led to higher interest rates that slowed productively and eventually plunged the nation into a recession around 1990, leaving George H.W. Bush to deal with the mess. Policy makers had little room to maneuver in that 1990-91 recession because of the large deficits. Ultimately, both Bush 41 and Bill Clinton mounted a major effort to undo Reaganomics, including the breach of the “no new taxes” pledge that helped turn the senior Bush into a one-term president. Contrary to what Cheney said, deficits did matter, which is why the mythmaking and its influence in Bush 43’s reckless ways is so disturbing.

In the long-term sense, Reagan turned America from a creditor nation, which it had been since World War I, into a debtor nation. If you are unhappy about all the dollars that America owes to China today, that is a major element of the legacy of the president of whom we’re now erecting all these bronze statues. What’s more, many people – myself included – fault Reagan for promoting a kind of sunny, credit-card-driven consumerism that didn’t just hurt the nation’s wallet but led to unwise spending decisions and too much borrowing by everyday citizens. Do you remember “Wall Street,” with Gordon Gekko and “greed is good”? It’s not a coincidence that film was released at the zenith of the Reagan presidency.

5. Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture, and his Justice Department indicted and prosecuted a Texas sheriff for waterboarding. How can his views about torture be reconciled with the current Republican pro-torture dogma?

It’s important not to nominate Reagan for sainthood in the arena of human rights. His “Reagan Doctrine” in Central America, leaving the fight to anti-Communist thugs and death squads that the then-president called “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” is arguably the gravest moral failing of his tenure. That said, back on U.S. soil, Reagan was far to the left of the 2010 Republican Party on issues such as torture. The convention that he signed in 1988 holds that there is no circumstance of any kind that permits torture, which certainly would include the 9/11 aftermath and related anti-terror efforts today.

But it goes even deeper than that. As I noted in an early 2010 blog post: “Reagan would not have approved of drone-fired missile attacks aimed at killing terrorists; as president, he several times rejected anti-terrorism operations for the sole reason that civilians would have been killed by collateral damage. In 1985, he surprised aides such as Pat Buchanan by ruling out a military response to a Beirut hijacking for fear of civilian casualties; Lou Cannon reported then in the Washington Post that Reagan called retaliation in which innocent civilians are killed “itself a terrorist act.” And the idea of trying terrorists in military tribunals as opposed to a civilian court of law? The Reagan administration was completely against that. Paul Bremer (yes, that Paul Bremer) said in 1987, “a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are — criminals — and to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law, against them.”

It’s almost tragic – when you go back to the very recent history of the 1980s – when you realize how seriously an American consensus on human rights and the power of our criminal-justice justice system has been trashed by the modern conservative movement. It’s going to take a long time to get that back – although the words that Reagan and his aides left behind could help America get past this.

6. What is the most endearing thing you learned about Ronald Reagan in the process of researching and writing your book?

paperback9781416597636

I mentioned above that his worries about the effect of so many nuclear weapons in the world were a sincere belief. One thing that I did not realize until I researched Tear Down This Myth was that in 1983, at Camp David, Reagan watched and was deeply moved by the nuclear war TV-movie sensation The Day After, which was perceived by most as a liberal and on some level anti-Reagan production. He wrote in his diary that the movie had strengthened his resolve to work with the Soviets on arms reduction, which he actually did after the arrival of Gorbachev. When he signed a major nuclear-reduction treaty in 1987, he telegraphed the producer of The Day After and said, “Don’t think that your movie had nothing to do with this, because it did.”

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The commissioner of CPB admitted that “leadership just got a little overzealous” when detaining hundreds of U.S. citizens of Iranian descent in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today