By Gil Troy
As we mark the centennial (Feb. 6th, 2011) of Ronald Reagan’s birth, the tug of war over his legacy continues. Reagan’s popular image – and popularity — have fluctuated as wildly as the stock market. One way to make sense of this is to think of Ronald Reagan as having nine public lives.
Central to the Reagan legend is this conservative Republican president’s origins as a Hollywood Democrat. Ronald Reagan was a New Deal Democrat who by the 1950s felt that the Democratic Party had lost its way. He always insisted: “Maybe my party changed. I didn’t.” And yes, Reagan was an actor. Actually, he never understood how anyone could be in politics without first having been in showbiz.
By 1966, when he ran successfully to become California’s governor, Reagan’s transformation was complete. During his two terms as governor, and during his triumphal 1980 run for the presidency, Reagan was known as a Conservative Ideologue, beloved by the right, disdained by the left. Although he won in an ABC election, with most Americans choosing Anybody But Carter, Reagan claimed he received a mandate for change.
Reagan started strong in his third incarnation, as the Reagan Revolutionary. He promised to cut the budget, reduce taxes, trim the bureaucracy, revive America, face down the Soviets. During his first seven and a half months in office, Reagan secured the largest budget cut in history – some $35 billion in domestic spending from Jimmy Carter’s request – and reduced the personal income tax rate by almost one quarter. Initially, Democrats were flummoxed. But by the summer of 1981, with Americans experiencing the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, Democrats attacked what they now called the “Reagan Recession.” Getting traction on the “Fairness Issue,” critics attacked the President as Mr. Magoo, a bumbling anti-Communist cowboy, a reverse Robin Hood and warmonger. They said he cut taxes for the rich and burdened the poor while risking nuclear war by calling the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire.” They mocked his gaffes, from blaming trees for causing air pollution to counting ketchup as a vegetable (which actually emanated from the Department of Agriculture not him). After Democrats surged in the 1982 Congressional midterm elections, pundits started eulogizing Reagan’s failed presidency.
Fortunately for Reagan, the economy revived before he had to face the electorate for re-election. With inflation tamed, jobs being created, American pride returned. Reagan reigned as a Popular Patriot. He blessed the prosperity as “Morning in America.” He pushed for a peaceful ending to the Cold War by going to Berlin to say to his Soviet counterpart, “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.” He repeatedly spurred Americans to build their county as “a shining city upon the hill.”
Yet by the time Reagan retired in January, 1989, even many Republicans were losing enthusiasm for him. By promising a “kinder, gentler” nation, Vice President George H.W. Bush became president implicitly casting Reagan as the Unkind, Ungentle President. The disrespect for Reagan in the Bush White House as lazy, ignorant, detached, became so overt that former President Richard Nixon fired off a note to Bush’s Chief of Staff John Sununu urging discretion. Bush then called Reagan to apologize.
When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992, he joined the pile-on, targeting Reaganite “greed” and accusing Reagan of neglecting middle class Americans.
As Reagan faded into the haze of Alzheimer’s, and as the Reagan-Bush-Clinton economic boom continued, Reagan’s stock rose. Americans remembered him fondly as the Prince of Peace and Prosperity, a genial, witty, optimist who restored American pride and patriotism.
After 2000, many Democrats who hated George W. Bush forgot how much they had detested Reagan. Suddenly, to many, Reagan became the Palatable Republican, the UnBush, proof they did not hate all Republicans, only the current Republican incumbent.
When Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, he called Reagan a Transformational Leader. This approach allowed Obama to hail Reagan as an icon, acknowledge his continuing popularity, while repudiating Reaganism.
Whenever politicians speak about Reagan’s legacy, they treat it as a clear, static object. In fact, his legacy, like all presidential legacies, is open to debate, just as his popularity will continue waxing and waning. Remembering their 40th President, Americans usually invoke one of Ronald Reagan’s nine lives – as the Hollywood Democrat, the Conservative Ideologue, the Reagan Revolutionary, Mr. Magoo, the Popular Patriot, the Unkind Ungentle President, the Prince of Peace and Prosperity, the Palatable Republican, or the Transformational Leader. Together, these labels paint a portrait of Ronald Reagan’s extraordinary life, reminding us that we live in a Reaganized America, still debating “Big Government” and cutting taxes on his terms, still living under his shadow. Ultimately, then, for better or worse, Ronald Reagan was the greatest president since Franklin Roosevelt, meaning the most significant president since the New Deal.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC. His latest books are The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction and (as co-editor) Living in the Eighties.