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Summer Books

Reagan’s legacy and the claims of the true believers


By Matthew Dallek
Free Press, 242 pages, $25


Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, editors
Free Press, 549 pages, $30


A group of true believers wants to add Ronald Reagan’s likeness to Mount Rushmore. The still-living 40th president is already memorialized in Washington’s National Airport, now “Reagan National” and, two blocks from the White House, the Ronald Reagan Building. Former first lady Nancy Reagan recently christened the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, and there’s serious talk (serious for Washington) about building a Reagan Memorial on the National Mall.

While there is some genuine sentiment associated with remembering Reagan -- conservatives love the man and fondly remember his eight-year reign -- the effort to place Reagan in his appropriate place within the presidential pantheon is not, however, a grassroots movement. It’s orchestrated, complete with in-house intellectuals and pundits, supporters at the highest levels of government, propaganda organs and publishing houses.

It’s even got a name: the “Reagan Legacy Project.” Members include the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly and the Free Congress Foundation’s Paul Weyrich, as well as Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, Jack Kemp and Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Not since Ted Sorenson, Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore White did so much to promote the myth of Kennedy’s Camelot have such influential public figures conspired to promote an idealized view of a president.

And these keepers of the Reagan flame are an increasingly testy lot: Those who challenge their view of the Reagan years are not simply wrong or misguided. They are challenging a man whose status, in the eyes of the faithful, lies somewhere between secular saint and god.

Example: Former Reagan wordsmith Jonathon Wilcox, writing in the online version of the National Review, the periodical that provided the intellectual heft to Reagan’s conservative populism, accused former Justice Department official and civil rights leader Roger Wilkins of an “ugly smear,” “pompously poisonous prattlings,” “ranting,” possessing a “tortured mind,” and of nothing less than “slander.” Why the fury?

Wilkins had commented on a news roundtable program that among the things Reagan should be remembered for was his use of “anti-black populism.” In measured tones -- Wilkins is a mild-mannered man not, like his antagonist, given to rants -- Wilkins had offered two examples. One, Reagan’s first stop as the Republican candidate for president in 1980, was Philadelphia, Miss., the infamous town where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964. Reagan didn’t mention the slain civil rights workers; instead, he promoted “states rights” -- not-so-subtle code words, a big wink, in fact, to those who still wanted blacks kept in their place. Example two: Wilkins recalled that “some years later Reagan went to Atlanta and he said, ‘Jefferson Davis is a hero of mine.’ Everybody knows what you’re talking about then, too.” Indeed, everybody did.

The point is not that Reagan was a “racist” -- Wilkins specifically said he wasn’t calling him one -- only that Reagan was a skilled and not entirely principled politician, not above appealing to the worst instincts of his base constituency.

In The Right Moment, historian Matthew Dallek makes it clear that Reagan was no stranger to sophisticated race baiting. “Racial issues also were an opportunity, albeit one that demanded careful handling,” writes Dallek in his carefully researched and non-partisan book, subtitled at great length, but with some accuracy, Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.

Reagan, for example, opposed a controversial statewide fair housing measure -- promoted by Democratic governor Pat Brown over the objection of the realtor lobby -- in favor of “voluntary solution” to discrimination. Likewise, he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It makes movement conservatives uneasy, nasty even, to be reminded that their hero was on the wrong side of the race question.

But it didn’t look like the wrong side of history when the B-movie actor made his first foray into electoral politics in the California of 1965-66. Students at Berkeley were claiming that their right to free speech was infringed when they were arrested for shouting the “F” word at the taxpayer-supported University of California at Berkeley. California ghettos were burning. Even liberal hearts were hardening. Perhaps it was time for some “law and order.”

In this climate Reagan would, with ease, defeat his Republican opposition, moderate San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, in a primary. He would then take on Pat Brown, a two-term governor who would be among the first, but not the last, of the professional politicians to underestimate the wily Reagan.

Reagan, you see, had a plan. “In a clear departure from the gloomy defiance that had characterized Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, and in a conscious attempt to distance himself from his earlier statements about communist hordes and totalitarian tyrannies, Reagan showed a sunny, sanguine disposition that emphasized the possibilities and glories of California life,” writes Dallek.

Reagan, of course, was a charming guy, while Brown was not. Brown was arrogant, a trait the mild-mannered Reagan did not project. “Like many liberals,” Dallek recalled, “Brown was well meaning but out of touch.” He simply could not fathom that California’s voters would substitute his experience and prudence for an untested right-wing actor.

While Dallek offers a well-crafted history of a seminal political fight, the most recent effort to solidify the Reagan legacy actually comes from Reagan himself -- in a collection of Reagan’s radio essays, delivered after his failed 1976 presidential run. They were recorded in anticipation of another run in 1980.

To the right, the essays show that their man had not only good instincts but a brain to match. “That is a problem we Reagan champions have: always trying to prove that our man -- undeniably a political leader of great skill -- was an intellectual force as well,” writes National Review managing editor Jay Nordlinger. In Reagan, In His Own Hand, the legacy-builders have found a cache of documents proving their case. The writings, says Nordlinger, “are profound and simple.” Well, they are simple.

Some of the speeches were little more than cut-and-paste jobs. A six-part series on arms control, for instance, consisted of Reagan reading from a report by anti-arms control advocate Eugene Rostow. Others do not withstand the test of time: Does anyone remember that Ronald Reagan opposed the breakup of AT&T?

Some are revealing: Congressman John Ashcroft’s late 1970s push to resurrect the House Un-American Activities Committee is recalled favorably. Still others are heartfelt but misbegotten: Support for brutal dictatorships of the right, a sympathy for the plight of South Africa’s racist government not balanced by any real concern for the millions it oppressed.

Only one of the nearly 700 essays deals with abortion, and here Reagan makes one of the stranger arguments for the pro-life position: that since an unborn child can inherit property in the event of its mother’s death, then the state should not sanction abortion. It is part of the enduring Reagan myth that he struggled for the pro-life cause, an area where, as president, he expended almost no political capital.

Reagan’s many admirers do a disservice to his legacy when they make him out to be, above all, a noble man, the mayor of the city on the hill he frequently invoked. It is silly of them to continue arguing over his intelligence: He was smart enough to outwit his opponents at nearly every turn. And pragmatic enough to govern, as California’s chief executive for eight years and as president, just to the right of the middle. It was Reagan, after all, who accepted the New Deal and, in the face of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, backed down from attempts to roll back the Great Society. He signed a massive tax increase, signed legislation making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday and failed to eliminate any significant federal program.

The real Reagan legacy, the one that will place him among our great presidents, is the absolute clarity he had about the evil of the Soviet Union and his belief that such a cockeyed system would ultimately fall under its own weight. In October 1975 he wrote of the Soviets’ “incompetent and ridiculous system.” That disdain would be repeated in presidential speeches and later to the British parliament, where he predicted that the communist system would land on the “ash heap of history.”

Reagan was at his best in the mid-1970s radio addresses when he told the stories of Soviet, East German or Cuban prisoners, locked away for speaking their minds and trying to change an unjust system. He was still at his best, and perhaps his most dangerous, when he did the same as president. And -- with the possible exceptions of John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev -- Reagan was the man who won the Cold War.

The problem, of course, is what to make of that today: There is no comparable threat, no empire that “is the focus of evil in the modern world.” So the right is left with the remainder of Reagan’s legacy: tax-cuts, small government, cracking down on welfare cheats. Hardly the stuff of Mount Rushmore.

Washington journalist Joe Feuerherd covered some of Reagan’s White House years for NCR as political affairs reporter and Washington Bureau Chief.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001