In this provocative new book, award-winning political journalist Will Bunch unravels the story of how a right-wing cabal hijacked the mixed legacy of Ronald Reagan, a personally popular but hugely divisive 1980s president, and turned him into a bronze icon to revive their fading ideology. They succeeded to the point where all the GOP candidates for president in 2008 scurried to claim his mantle, no matter how preposterous the fit.
With clear eyes and an ever-present wit, Bunch reveals the truth about the Ronald Reagan legacy, including the following:
• Despite the idolatry of the last fifteen years, Reagan's average popularity as president was only, well, average, lower than that of a half-dozen modern presidents. More important, while he was in office, a majority of Americans opposed most of his policies and by 1988 felt strongly that the nation was on the wrong track. Reagan's 1981 tax cut, weighted heavily toward the rich, did not cause the economic recovery of the 1980s. It was fueled instead by dropping oil prices, the normal business cycle, and the tight fiscal policies of the chairman of the Federal Reserve appointed by Jimmy Carter. Reagan's tax cut did, however, help usher in the deregulated modern era of CEO and Wall Street greed.
• Most historians agree that Reagan's waste-ridden military buildup didn't actually "win the Cold War." And Reagan mythmakers ignore his real contributions -- his willingness to talk to his Soviet adversaries, his genuine desire to eliminate nuclear weapons, and the surprising role of a "liberal" Hollywood-produced TV movie.
• George H. W. Bush's and Bill Clinton's rolling back of Reaganomics during the 1990s spurred a decade of peace and prosperity as well as the reactionary campaign to pump up the myth of Ronald Reagan and restore right-wing hegemony over Washington. This effort has led to war, bankrupt energy policies, and coming generations of debt.
With masterful insight, Bunch exposes this dangerous effort to reshape America's future by rewriting its past. As the Obama administration charts its course, he argues, it should do so unencumbered by the dead weight of misplaced and unearned reverence.
In an attempt to challenge the legend that has sprung up around Ronald Reagan's presidency over the past decade, Bunch, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, argues that the Reagan "myth" is dangerous because, unlike other American presidents held up as heroes, like Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson, reverence for Reagan did not emerge organically. Rather, the GOP hatched the Reagan myth, feeding it to the news media "for purposes that were essentially partisan in nature... pulling off a maneuver that was unprecedented in American history." The result has been a simplified reconstruction of Reagan, from far from universally popular president to the man who ended the Cold War and spurred unprecedented economic growth. Bunch contends Reagan was responsible for neither, at least not singlehandedly. Instead, he claims that the 40th president's real achievement lay in his ability to compromise, an element of his leadership conservatives have ignored since he left office. Neither Bunch's arguments nor his prose are powerful enough to do more than slightly tarnish Reagan's halo, but his book capably puts into perspective an imperfect but fascinating administration.