Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future
Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future

5.0 out of 5 stars Balanced and Fair, So There...,
By Hank Drake (Cleveland, OH United States) - See all my reviews
Ronald Reagan was out of the public eye for the ten years preceding his death. During his time in office, and in his first five years out of office, there was an anti-Reagan backlash. (Even George H. W. Bush had a small hand in that, when he spoke of a "kinder and gentler" America, Nancy Reagan was said to have asked, "Kinder and gentler than who?") Numerous critical books were written about Reagan both during and immediately after his presidency.

After Reagan movingly went public with his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1994, negative criticism in print and on the broadcast media ceased - partly out of respect, but mostly because publishers thought negative books on Reagan would not sell. The former president was consigned to the mist of hagiography. By the time he died in 2004, there were serious calls for memorialization such as adding his visage to the dime and even to Mount Rushmore.

It takes time to look back at history with real perspective.

Two books have been recently published which attempt to present an alternative perspective on the Reagan presidency. One, William Kleinecht's The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America, is revisionist polemic and does more to enrage than enlighten. Will Bunch's Tear Down this Myth, however, is a fair and balanced (to borrow a phrase popular with right-wingers) look at the Reagan presidency. Far from polemic, and often complimentary to President Reagan, Bunch attempts to reveal the presidency of Ronald Reagan as it was experienced by those during the era. Many of the negative reviews appearing on Amazon are obviously written by those who didn't read the book. As I've said before, Amazon needs to look more carefully at reviews before publishing them. This is not a chat board.

The difference between Reagan and George W. Bush, Bunch implies, is that while Reagan had a general philosophy (lower taxes, deregulate the market, stand tall against the Soviets), Bush was dogmatically rigid. True, Reagan signed a massive (and warranted) tax cut in 1981. But he signed six tax increases in the years that followed. Despite what idolaters parrot, the '81 tax cut did not spur economic recovery, but preceded an even deeper recession than the one Reagan inherited. Faced with a Democratic controlled House (and for six years, Senate), Reagan had to compromise on many of his programs. After proposing draconian entitlement cuts in 1981 (anyone remember "ketchup is a vegetable?"), Reagan realized they would never sell and backed off. Ever the pragmatist, Reagan worked with House Speaker Tip O'Neill (who were poles apart politically but enjoyed each others' company) to reform Social Security. He also signed immigration reform and programs to improve health care for the catastrophically ill. Talking tough against the Soviets, Reagan nevertheless was able to hammer out agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev which did more to reduce Cold War tensions than the détente favored by his predecessors. (He also became so worried about increasing tensions in 1983 that he considered inviting Yuri Andropov to an emergency summit.)

But Reagan made mistakes which have been glossed over: including the stationing of Marines in Lebanon and providing aid to Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Contra scandal, which nearly sank his presidency, has been almost forgotten. And the spiraling deficits of the 1980s (repeated 20 years later) proved that the Laffer Curve, which was the cornerstone of Reaganomics, had no basis in actual fact.

How then, did Reagan will two landslides? It's simple. Even though numerous polls showed the American people were leery of his policies, they just liked the guy.

Tear Down this Myth is well researched and Bunch writes in fine, easily readable style. Conservatives have touted Ronald Reagan as America's savior, while Liberals have painted him as the devil incarnate. Reality, as Will Bunch demonstrates, is somewhere in between.

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