A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
... what the Reagan library is peddling is the Disneyland version of Reagan.
-- Will Bunch, author of Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future
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Will Bunch and BuzzFlash have been a mutual admiration society for some time. Will pens for the Philadelphia Daily News, but his writing is frequently featured on BuzzFlash from his blog Attytood.
A while back, Bunch felt driven to debunk the lingering harm of the mythology that the right wing built up about Reagan, largely after he left office. As a result, Will's book Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future was born -- and a fine expose it is.
Also see: BuzzFlash Visits the Reagan Library.
* * *BuzzFlash: Will, when you fly into D.C., do you call it National Airport or Reagan Airport?
Will Bunch: Hah! Maybe that's why I always drive to Washington (it's only 2 ½ hours) or take the Biden-approved Amtrak route. The last time I flew to that airport, Reagan was still president! Semi-seriously, I'm not surprised that Grover Norquist and the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project chose that airport as their first re-naming target -- it's used by many Democratic members of Congress and the East Coast liberal media elites, right?
BuzzFlash: Actually, this is a question that does relate directly to your book. The Republican Reagan mythologizers were hell-bent on renaming National to "honor" the "Reagan revolution," and they succeeded. How do efforts like this fit into the GOP effort to make Reagan into a mythic figure?
Will Bunch: I think the campaign by the Reagan legacy project to rename some public facility -- whether it's a road or a school or a Post Office -- for the Gipper in every one of America's more than 3,000 counties (already successful in a couple of hundred) is also a real tribute to the power of style over substance. The real historical legacy of Reagan is complex and often unflattering -- stirring rhetoric even as the national debt soared out of control and as his government was secretly trading arms for hostages in Iran. But when an American -- especially the millions of voters now too young to remember Reagan's actual presidency -- attend the Ronald Reagan Middle School or drive to work down Ronald Reagan Boulevard, the broader not-so-subliminal message is that the 40th president was simply a great man - - and that we should want future presidents and government policies that are inspired by him.
BuzzFlash: You focus in your book a lot on the recreating of Reagan, the building of a hagiography so to speak. After Reagan left office, who coordinated the mythmaking about Reagan?
Will Bunch: When Bill Clinton was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1996 amid an economic boom, a generation of conservatives who came to Washington during the Reagan years and populated a network of think tanks, right-wing publications, lobbying shops, etc., realized that what they thought had been their revolution was slipping away. The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project was founded the following year, the same time as the Heritage Foundation released a special report on recapturing the legacy of the Gipper. The main architect was Grover Norquist, the GOP activist and lobbyist who's at the center of this nexus, but he was joined by a who's who of 1980s and 1990s conservatives, as well as supportive members of Congress like Georgia's Bob Barr. The movement gained power as their presidential frontrunner George W. Bush re-invented himself not as the heir to his dad but as Reagan's disciple.
BuzzFlash: One of your chapters is on how the Republican candidates for president all tried to attach themselves to the Reagan legend, while most often running from Bush. Why is evoking Reagan so important to a Republican running for office?
Will Bunch: The reason you saw so much talk about Reagan in the 2008 campaign was a perfect storm. The GOP candidates saw adopting the Reagan mantle as a kind of shorthand for overcoming their own weaknesses with conservative voters (for example, the fairly moderate-to-liberal positions and statements that Giuliani, Romney and McCain had all espoused at times during the 1990s.)
What's more, none of the candidates wanted to suggest they'd be a successor to the failed policies of George W. Bush, so Reagan -- really the only arguably (and I emphasize that word) successful GOP president since Eisenhower -- became the only role model. The problem was this constant focus on Reagan trivialized the very serious issues we face today, including problems like lack of Wall Street regulation or a coherent energy policy that to a great degree were actually caused by the Reagan administration.
BuzzFlash: One thing BuzzFlash brings up again and again when discussing Reagan is that we can't ever forget that he was an actor, promoted by the head of General Electric and wealthy Californians to advance a right-wing political agenda. Occasionally, Reagan would even mention fictional scenes in films as historical fact. Isn't he the perfect president to create a heroic legend about?
Will Bunch: Yes! One notion I write about in "Tear Down This Myth" is that most of the strength and success from the Reagan presidency was from the use of powerful symbolism and imagery. Aides placed as much emphasis on finding the right backdrop for a landmark event -- the cliffs of Normandy where he observed the 40th anniversary of D-Day, or securing the Brandenburg Gate for his "tear down this wall" speech in 1987 -- as they did on actual policy matters.
What I don't believe people focused on at the time is that these sound bites could become a lazy media's bookmark for history, rather than the actual facts of the 1980s. Frequently, TV retrospectives will play the "tear down this wall" clip right before the shot of joyous Germans toppling the wall in 1989, leading younger viewers to assume a cause-and-effect that just isn't there. It is a Hollywood kind of special effect -- fitting when one remembers that Reagan mistakenly believed that he witnessed a Nazi concentration camp in person when in fact he was in Hollywood producing a movie about one, or that the idea for his costly "Star Wars" space weapons debacle may have begun with a 1940s science fiction movie that he starred in.
BuzzFlash: One of the key notions that you debunk is about Reagan as a tax cutter. In what way is this a misleading rallying point for the GOP?
Will Bunch: It's misleading in a number of ways. Beginning in 1982, Reagan signed onto a series of tax increases, in part to deal with the simple fact that his landmark 1981 tax bill cut revenues by far too much. But because Reagan's subsequent compromises are whitewashed from the record, you'll see modern GOP leaders like Bush and McCain insist that taxes can only be cut, even in an era of two wars and rising deficits.
In fact, there's little evidence that Reagan's tax cuts caused the economic recovery of the mid-1980s -- that was more the result of fiscal policies pursued by Jimmy Carter-appointed Fed chairman Paul Volcker, a steep drop in global oil prices and the normal bounce-back of the business cycle. What his tax cuts did accomplish was to initiate the period of a rising gap between the rich and poor in America, as well as the era of runaway CEO pay and unfettered greed on Wall Street.
BuzzFlash: I wrote a piece about a visit my wife and I made to the Reagan library. It was like a Hollywood set, but in some ways revealed more than I think it meant to about the "lightness" of the man. What is your reaction to the Simi Valley Presidential Library?
Will Bunch: I could not agree with that more. Make no mistake -- it's an entertaining day for history buffs like ourselves (Air Force One, which is there as a result of the mega-millions that its donor T. Boone Pickens made during the Reagan years and beyond, has the desired "wow" factor). But what the Reagan library is peddling is the Disneyland version of Reagan. Most incredibly, there is no mention -- zero, none, nada -- of the Iran-Contra scandal, the story that dominated much of Reagan's second term in office. Instead, they want you to leave thinking that Reagan single-handedly toppled the Berlin Wall, which is why you see a slab of the actual wall and then replicas and reminders scattered all over the place.
BuzzFlash: Why do Democrats have such a difficult time simply using real facts to debunk the Reagan myth?Will Bunch: Remember, the Reagan myth was really fashioned during a long period in which the former president was slowing dying from Alzheimer's disease (and to be clear, Reagan's graceful exit from public life in 1994 and Nancy Reagan's ensuing battle for stem-cell research are deserving of praise), culminating with his death in 2004. I believe there was a sense during this long period of 10 years that anything stronger than the mildest rebuttals of the Reagan myth might have looked tacky. But now that Reagan is gone, the tenets of his hijacked legacy have become so ensconced in the mainstream media and public discourse that they are hard to dislodge.
BuzzFlash: BuzzFlash is located in Illinois, where I have lived most of my life. Even though Reagan was born and raised and went to college in Illinois, I never got the sense that he had any close relationship with the state, nor did Illinois really embrace him as a native son. Now with Obama, here is a guy that moved here, but is very much a resident of Illinois and proud of it. Why do you think Reagan didn't appear to have a sense of strong roots? His "Main Street" America was more the one out of Disneyland than the one of his alcoholic father upbringing in Dixon, Illinois.Will Bunch: Reagan was a strong believer in the notion of heroism, and the ability of one man to move multitudes of people. Hollywood was a natural place for someone with his ambitions to migrate. He was a very externally motivated individual -- Gerald Ford once said that he revealed more of himself in public speeches than in private conservations. Perhaps because of his father's alcoholism, it was very difficult for Reagan to form close personal relationships -- even with his own children, sadly -- or to put down deep roots.
BuzzFlash: Finally, we just had the entire Republican delegation in Congress vote against a Main Street (for the most part) stimulus package. Republicans are still touting tax cuts (which have been ruinous) as the cure-all, when they've led, in part, to an economy in deep, deep crisis. That's some pretty powerful Reagan myth, isn't it?Will Bunch: You bet! In 2003, when the then-GOP majority in Congress enacted Bush's second tax cut plan, unprecedented in a time of war, Republican congressman Jim Nussle of Iowa said his party felt an obligation to "follow the Reagan playbook." That is still true six years later -- despite the overwhelming body of facts that a spending program would have a greater impact on jobs and the economy than yet another steep tax cut. But, then, it was Reagan who stumbled verbally in 1988 and told a Republican convention that "facts are stupid things," which may be an epitaph for today's GOP.
BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
Obama, Be Like Reagan (by Will Bunch, 1/22/09, LA Times)
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW