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Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy…
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Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and…

by Will Bunch

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A new look at the Reagan myth, one that shows Reagan as he was - a flawed human being who did some things right and some things wrong, and who understood America well enough to play on some of the worst traits: our greed, our selfishness, and our short attention spans that prefer one minute sound bites to in depth exploration of policy. The author does a good job at tracing the evolution of the Reagan myth, and how that myth has influenced politics for the past two decades, but he misses the boat entirely on Clinton, believing somehow that Clinton veered sharply away from the Reagan persona, instead of recognizing that Clinton, in fact, fit on a seamless line with Reagan. Overall, it's good reading, and should be read by anyone too young to remember Reagan, or too starstruck to remember him correctly. Not a hatchet job, but a more nuanced look at the black and white. In fact, in many places, the author actually feels like the myth shows him in much worse light, and that he really wasn't a rabid religious right war monger, but instead resisted going to war most of the time, and gave the religious right little more than rhetoric. An important entry in the genre of Let's try to figure out how we got where we are today. ( )
1 vote Devil_llama | Jul 12, 2011 |
In a Gallup poll not too long ago (Febriary 2009), Americans ranked Ronald Reagan #2 as the greatest American president of all time, just barely behind Abraham Lincoln. Higher than those Founding Fathers, Washington and Jefferson. Higher than both Roosevelts, Teddy and FDR. How could that be?

There’s talk of replacing U.S. Grant with Reagan’s picture on the $50 bill, even of adding his profile to those on Mt. Rushmore. Let’s not fool ourselves: in the popular mind, Ronald Wilson Reagan has fast become a myth, faster even than Abe Lincoln, whose recognition came a generation or two after his assassination.

Starting with the Reagan Freeway in Simi Valley in California, you can probably drive across the United States on Reagan roads and streets and highways, past Reagan schools and buildings and parks, until you reach Reagan Turnpike in Florida. . Thus, ordinary citizens – many of them – remember the image better than the man, the persona better than the policies associated with his name. The man who auditioned for the role of his lifetime by smiling jovially and saying, “Good Morning, America,” may have charmed his audience so that they have, quite literally, idolized him. But not without a lot of help from his friends

Of course, there’s a Reagan myth machine, made up of neo-conservatives and funded by tax-warrior lobbyists. Their ambition was to have something named for Reagan in every county in the USA. They began their campaign by gettimg Washington National Airport renamed for Reagan (some of us still stubbornly call it Washington National) and adding a Reagan building on the Washington Mall. Grover Norquist and his media manipulators have done their job well.

But the Reagan of the 1980s and the Reagan now idolized by Republicans and held up by popular media are, indeed, two different figures. Before this year’s elections, voters need to be reminded of the facts and the fantasies of recent history. You might want to recommend that they read a new paperback, Tear Down This Myth (Free Press, 2010), by Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News. The last half of the book is a fascinating account of how Norquist and his allies systematically went about spreading the myth, not to honor the man, but to establish a neoconservative ideal, one that would unify the probusiness tax-cutters, the anti-immigrant isolationists, the corporate oligarchs, the imperialistic neocons, and of course, the “Christian” right. The mythmakers took advantage of Reagan’s lingering illness and dramatic funerals when, out of courtesy and decent respect, there was little opposition to memorializing the Gipper. Their triumph, of course, was in the election and re-lection of George Bush II, who on a practical level became Reagan II. George Bush I had been punished as the anti-type of the mythic Reagan. He spoke the words fearlessly (and foolishly): “Read my lips, no more taxes.” But then the immediately did what needed to be done to solve the problems Reagan had left to him: he raised taxes.

But even more important than his account of media management and conscious mythmaking are Bunch’s central chapters that contrast the idolized Reagan with the real Reagan. Norquist launched the Reagan Legacy Project in 1997 as a subsidiary of his well-known Americans for Tax Reform. “The guy ended the Cold War,” Norquist proclaimed, “he turned the economy around.” The only problem with both assertions is that they are inaccurate. Two central chapters in Bunch’s books should be required reading for all voters: “Warrior Defused” and “An Untaxing Burden.”

The former demonstrates that, in fact, one of the genuine achievements of Reagan’s presidency grew from “his heroic dream to rid the world of atomic weapons,” efforts in stark contrast with “the high veneer of soaring rhetoric that was often undercut with a lot less fanfare by dirty deeds around the globe.” Bunch’s chapter, however, is clear and substantive: Reagan was not a warrior president nor did his leadership bring an end to the Cold War. Bunch concludes, “There is a plotline where ‘tear down this wall’ bravado is a distraction from a real moral of the story – because [the real moral] is all about accommodation and talking to enemies [not violent confrontation].” Ironically, in this chapter Reagan becomes both more humane and more effective as a president than the myth allows him to be, a pragmatist and peacemaker rather than an ideologue and warmonger.

Even more revealing, and especially germane now, is the chapter exposing the “tax-cutter” Reagan. In his bold first move, he did indeed, sign legislation cutting the income taxes of the wealthy from seventy to fifty percent and of the working poor from fourteen to eleven percent. He also cut (decimated might be a better word) taxes on capital gains, inheritances, and large, profitable corporations, But the myth does not account for the thirteen measures he later signed raising taxes. Nor for the fact that the significant increase in payroll taxes actually increased the tax burden of middle-income families. At the beginning of his term they paid 8.2% in income tax and 9.5% in payroll taxes; in 1988, they paid 6.6 in income taxes but 11.5 in payroll taxes. Furthermore, Bunch examines Reagonomics to show that “trickle-down” economics didn’t trickle down, big government didn’t get littler, big spending didn’t stop or even falter, and the deficit and national debt became the sine qua non of federal budgeting. One of his own financial advisors said, “The major failure of the Reagan Administration was the failure to discipline spending.” (W.A. Niskanen of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors)

Another chapter, “Prospero Unmasked,” shows that during his tenure, Reagan was not even a particularly popular president. His overall approval rating ranks well below FDR, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, and even a bit lower than those of Lyndon Johnson, the elder Bush, and Bill Clinton, in spite of the bad vibes experienced during their presidencies. People liked his smile; but 62% of them were saying the country was headed in the wrong direction. By the middle of his second term, the press and fellow politicians were throwing around such terms as “failed presidency,” Time talked about the Reagan Illusion: “the idea that there could be a defense buildup and a tax cut without a price.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “The Reagan era is over.” After Iran-Contra, Newt Gingerich said simply, “He blew it.” The Washington Post asked, “Is the President suffering from humility?” ultimately concluding it was just as likely that “the falw results not from dementia but from laziness.” The myth was becoming unraveled even before it was woven.

Even as late as 1996, a survey of 719 historians and political scientists ranked him #26 out of the 41 presidents, behind the elder Bush and Clinton. But, by the spring of 1997, according to Bunch, the mythmaking movement was well underway. “What Norquist and his allies proposed was virtually unheard of: an active, mapped out, audacious campaign to spread a distorted vision of his legacy across America.” The start of the campaign was timed well, coinciding with the sordid news of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair blazoned in headlines. The team began looking for a figurehead, someone to be hyped as a successor to the ideal, neoconservative Reagan, an heir to his mythic legacy. They found – hear, hear – George Walker Bush. The neo-cons were on their way.

So what most people remember today, and still quote, is Reagan’s mythic message to Gorbachev, “Tear down this Wall.” What we must do before it’s too late is to “tear down this myth.” Bunch’s last chapter, “Exorcising Gipper’s Ghost,” is not as practical, as detailed, as imaginative as one might have hoped. He does suggest some bold initiatives to counter the high-powered mythmaking. “The most powerful but ignored legacy of Ronald Reagan lies in the things he didn’t do at all.” Writers, like Will Bunch himself must get the word out. “The only way to slay a myth is with those stubborn things – facts.” Bunch’s central chapters are a step in the right direction.
1 vote bfrank | May 23, 2010 |
Ronald Reagan’s star has been on an upward trajectory, for these past few years, reaching such celestial heights, that the Right utter his name in hushed reverence. The Holy One! There was even a proposal, on having him added to Mt. Rushmore. Will Bunch, an award-winning political journalist, brings our sainted fortieth President, crashing back to Earth, where he belongs, leaving the cowboy hat and big stick, resting quietly by the door. This is not a heated slam-fest, it is a clear-eyed, factual look at a misunderstood presidency. Yes, there are undeniable qualities to this man, but there are also a fair share of flaws. Someone famously said that “facts are stubborn things”. Reagan flubbed this line, in a speech, as “facts are stupid things”. In this excellent, well-researched book, facts rule the day! ( )
1 vote msf59 | Jan 30, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 141659762X, Hardcover)

Nearly two decades after leaving office and four years after his death, the legend of Ronald Reagan looms larger than ever over America's political life. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the 2008 presidential campaign, with Republicans - especially presumptive nominee John McCain - appearing to run more aggressively for the Reagan mantle than for the White House itself, and with even Democrats debating how to add some Reagan lustre to their progressive platform. It will build upon existing volume of works about the Reagan presidency, more contemporary news accounts and the work of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, with interviews with key Reagan scholars and contemporaries, to produce a narrative arc that breaks down the key myths about Reagan and his record, the intentional creation of these myths in the 1990s and 2000s and their role in 21st Century politics, including the Bush presidency, the 2008 election, and beyond

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:57 -0400)

Bunch rolls back some of the worst distortions concerning the Reagan myth--that Reagan was one of the most popular modern presidents; that his tax cut caused the bull market of the 1980s; and that he won the Cold War--and examines the Gipper's conservatist legacy as it continues to impact America's political and economic situation.… (more)

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