Note to American politicians: Stay dead long enough and all will be forgiven. Add some postmortem marketing, and you might be beatified. Martyrdom helps. John F. Kennedy, for instance, supported the Baathist revolt in Iraq, which led to Saddam Hussein’s rise and escalated the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, setting the stage for the decade-long war. But since his assassination JFK has rested in America’s pantheon — a visionary, a prince, a saint.
And are you ready for jolly old Saint Dick? It could happen. Even Nixon has gained respect now that he’s not here to kick around anymore. John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China — which immortalizes the disgraced president’s one progressive foreign-policy move — is staged constantly worldwide. The Metropolitan Opera production, broadcast live in HD, is now showing in several theaters around Vermont.
The Ronald Reagan Hagiography and Beatification Project has been laboring full time since the president left the Oval Office in 1990. This is not just a Republican effort. Its success may have been secured, in fact, by Barack Obama in 2008, when he praised the former president for restoring “accountability” to government and a national “sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship.” Reagan, said Obama, “changed the trajectory of America.” Since then, Democrats regularly invoke the Gipper’s inspiration.
Now America is celebrating Ronald Reagan’s centennial, and the party shows no sign of winding down. Galas, TV and magazine specials, DVDs, books, including a soft-hearted memoir from his liberal, gay son, a Jumbotron tribute at the Superbowl, and a proliferation of commemorative products, including the 50-flavor jelly-bean gift pack, all express growing affection across the political spectrum. A Gallup poll ranks Reagan second only to Kennedy among the most admired modern presidents.
The problem is, Reagan’s mythic status is just that — a myth, based on rewritten history and selective amnesia.
This is true even of his conservative bona fides. Think Progress’ memory-jogging list includes the inconvenient truths that, as California’s governor, Reagan oversaw the largest tax increase in any state’s history and doubled spending. After his 1981 federal tax cut — followed by unemployment above 10 percent — President Reagan raised taxes 11 times. He grew the federal government to unprecedented size, adding $100 billion yearly in military spending alone and tripling the budget deficit. And he extended amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants — not a policy beloved by today’s right wing.
The Left, of course, had plenty to hold against the guy. Reagan smashed the air-traffic controllers’ union as his first act in office. He vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 (but was overridden) and committed impeachable acts when he cut secret deals with Iran to arm right-wing rebel squads in Nicaragua. He stood by silently as AIDS took 30,000 American lives and, both inside and outside government, gave powerful public support to the religious Right and the antiabortion movement. And from his post as the top government official in the nation — indeed, the world — he promoted the now ascendant ideology that government is the problem, not the solution.
Reagan’s morning-in-America optimism — the glow around today’s national memory of the 1980s — did not lift the spirits of the thousands of workers who lost good jobs forever. His trickle-down economic policies may have produced what Time magazine recently called a “steroidal” 7 percent growth in the four quarters following the 1982 elections, but that wealth flowed to the already wealthy, where it has stayed. Reagan raised payroll taxes, hitting the middle class and the poor hardest, while slashing the income tax rate on the richest from 70 percent to 28 percent. Income disparity has widened ever since.
Yet we seem to have forgotten all this.
Talk to a European, and it’s as if World War II happened yesterday. Ask an Iraqi about her history, and she’s likely to start with Qurna, the site of the Garden of Eden. Why can’t Americans remember what happened 25 years ago?
We could — if we wanted to. But our national forgetfulness serves us.
Forgetting a period of vicious political division burnishes our self-image as a nation unparalleled in its unity and uninterrupted in its stability. Forgetting the deliberate upward redistribution of wealth preserves the fiction that we are all middle class.
The fantasy of our economic and social equality — which implies that we all share the same interests — is reflected in our ambivalence toward politics, for politics enacts the opposite of shared interests: the contest for power. This ambivalence, even antipathy, shows up in the charge traded across the aisle that the other side is “being political.” In our endless cries for civility, we frequently confuse politesse with conciliation, as if real conflict would disturb the peace. We value moderation above all, and what is moderation but the art of not taking a stand?
It’s not surprising, then, that moderates are welcoming the airbrushing of the Reagan legacy. “You could take this as a good sign of the possible harmony and unity in American history,” said James Fallows on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” “that figures who in their own era of governance were tremendously divisive” are now widely embraced. Comparing Reagan to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was also hated by some in his day, the journalist and historian continued: “As time goes on, representatives of all political parties and all political heritages find things in this background, of this tradition they want to align themselves with.”
The problem is, to “align” ourselves with Reagan, Americans would have to rasp off the sharp edges of his ideology and his policies, which jabbed and slashed and in some cases literally killed union workers, gay people, Nicaraguans and poor women. Achieving “harmony and unity” requires forgetting Reagan’s real legacy: the reversal of growing postwar economic equality, the legitimization of religious hyperconservatism and the glorification of greed, which has brought us to our current crisis.
Ronald Reagan was not a great president. He was not even a good president. He “changed the trajectory of America,” all right — in the wrong direction. Let history record that, lest we fail to correct our course.