Monday, June 7, 2004

Reagan’s Legacy

Let the mourning go on, but let’s also remember that one of the legacies Ronald Reagan left us is the hordes of politicians who will try to be the “next” Reagan, including the current occupant of the White House. Rick Perlstein takes a look at this phenomonon.

I feel bound to respect Ronald Reagan, as every American should — not least because he chose a career of public service when he could have made a lot more money doing something else, and not least because he took genuine risks for peace. (President Bush, in contrast, seems to know only how to derange the world with war.) But in the necrophiliac orgy that is now upon us, there are three messages that I — as a historian of the rise of the modern conservative movement in the 1960s, and as a reporter on the conservative regency in election year 2004 — wish that more people would hear.

The first is that if Reagan’s partisans succeed in creating an indelible memory of him as someone that everyone loved all the time, they will have won an important political struggle with consequences for today.

The second is that if his partisans succeed in minting Reagan in public memory as a repository of bedrock principle, they will have been complicit in letting forgetting win the battle against remembering — because on their own, conservative terms, Reagan was often a sellout.

And last, if they manage to make the rest of us remember Reagan as the embodiment of the kind of genial conservative even a liberal could love — a refreshing counterweight to the lunatic conservatives we have to deal with now — they will have scrambled history instead of helping to inform it. Because Reagan was always much more frightening than the sunny optimist of now-popular legend. [ – subscription/Day Pass required]

Let’s not forget, also, that Reagan gave us Chief Justice William Rehnquist as well as Justice Antonin Scalia, and almost Robert Bork. In addition, he gave us the largest tax hike in history two years after riding into office promising to cut them, drove the country into horrendous debt, and energized the Christian fundamentalists. And he got away with it because he was so gosh darn nice.