The Centennial Of Ronald Reagan: Myth And Reality

Today is the centennial of President Ronald Reagan’s birth, and it begins a year of commemorative events relating to our 40th President.

Ronald Reagan was a very charismatic leader, handsome even at an older age than any other President, and very charming and personable. It was hard not to like Reagan as a human being, and he could be very funny, and played the ceremonial role of the President as if he was the Queen of England!

But many myths have been built up around Ronald Reagan in the years since he left the Presidency, and particularly in the years since his death at age 93 in June 2004.

The myths have sustained the Tea Party Movement of the past two years, and have motivated the ignorant, poorly educated Sarah Palin, who was the absolutely wrong person to speak at commemorative events this weekend in southern California! It is a travesty to assert, as some do, that Sarah Palin is the heir to Ronald Reagan, as she has no clue as to his accomplishments, shortcomings, and motivations. Reagan would be shocked that Sarah Palin is speaking in his honor, a point well made by son Ron Reagan, Jr.!

Ronald Reagan restored our defenses which helped to lead to the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan restored a sense of patriotism and honor after the difficult years following the Vietnam War’s sad ending. And Ronald Reagan was an inspirational leader in his rhetoric, stimulating the American people like no one since John F. Kennedy.

But Ronald Reagan had many shortcomings and failures, which are conveniently forgotten by his supporters in the Republican Party and Tea Party Movement, or better still, many are totally unaware of the reality of his record in office!

This is a man who tripled the national debt, beginning the long downhill trend in responsible economic policy which has led to the present massive national debt problem that is the leading economic crisis since the Great Depression!

This is a man who set back civil rights, labor rights, the environment, and worsened the plight of the poor, while promoting the rich getting richer, and the middle class becoming poorer, via giving major tax cuts to the rich, but adding to the tax burden of the middle class!

This is a man who ignored human rights in many countries, and allied with Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, who both turned against the United States after we armed both of them so readily!

This is a man who reacted to a terrorist attack on our troops in Beirut, Lebanon, by withdrawing from the Middle East, something his supporters try to make believe did not happen!

This is a man who talked about the social issues of the Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and yet never followed through on them more than rhetoric, and hardly ever went to church or associated with his children, preferring to spend his personal time with his wife Nancy without their children!

This was a man who was tough with the Soviet Union, but negotiated significant arms agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, and had a vision of banning nuclear weapons worldwide over the long haul!

This was a man who talked about smaller government, but actually increased the size of the government, and created a new cabinet agency of Veterans Affairs and backed off on a campaign pledge to eliminate the Departments of Education and Energy, which many Republicans today would love to destroy!

And the myth that is probably most believed is that Ronald Reagan was supremely popular throughout his time in the Presidency, which is the furthest thing from the truth, as he was more popular AFTER his Presidency, particularly after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1994. Much of the time during his eight years in office, his public opinion ratings floundered. John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and George H W Bush were all more generally popular in the polls than Ronald Reagan, as hard as that is to believe!

Ronald Reagan may be the patron saint of the far right today, but in many ways, it is clear that he would not approve of the inflexibility of his party in Congress, and the loony, nutty behavior of many of its top leaders, as well as the right wing talk show hosts on radio and Fox News Channel!

Historians will be writing about Ronald Reagan for all time, and he will continue to be one of the most fascinating and significant Presidents we have had, but the concept that he was an ideal President who mostly succeeded in making the country a better place will continue to be contested by those who wish to look at reality, rather than promote a myth!

But then, mythology around Presidents is a popular activity, and it makes the job of historians only the more important, to separate truth from propaganda. So the work of demythologizing Ronald Reagan continues in earnest!