Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Legacy Lives

One of my favorite bloggers (who is also a pretty good journalist, I might add) has just published a new book on the legacy of another former President, Ronald Reagan.

Will Bunch, who writes Attytood, is a daily read for me. Discussing his new book, Bunch describes his literary effort, in Why Reagan still matters: A sneak peek at "Tear Down This Myth":

Jan. 20, 2009, was such a transformative day in American politics that it was easy to forget it also marked a 20th anniversary as well. The inauguration of President Barack Obama also meant it was two decades to the exact day since Ronald Reagan last sat in the Oval Office. When he and his wife Nancy boarded the Air Force One jetliner – the one that was later decommissioned, de-assembled and reassembled at the Ronald Reagan Library (and mostly paid for by oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens) – for the long trip back to California, it wasn’t clear how the world would remember Reagan’s presidency.

For the majority of his second term, Americans told pollsters that the nation was on a wrong track, and in 1987 a 55-percent majority said we needed a new direction away from Reagan’s often divisive policies. But in little more than five years after leaving Washington, the Great Communicator would be silenced by Alzheimer’s -- and a new generation of neoconservatives would construct a mythologized, iconic version of the 40th president that increasingly bore little resemblance to the flesh-and-blood Ronald Reagan. It is that modern version – and warped policies that could be collectively called Reaganism – that has given us an unfathomable national debt, a wide gulf between the nation’s rich and poor, the denial of basic science on energy and the environment, and which was even used to justify an unjustifiable war in Iraq that the real Gipper himself would never undertaken.

Twenty years gone – but Reagan still matters. About this time one year ago, unceasing Reagan idolatry hijacked the race for the White House. Sometimes it was voiced in the name of policies on immigration or toward Iran that were the exact opposite of what really happened a generation ago. The power of this political fantasy – expressed mainly, of course, on the GOP side but occasionally even spilling over to the Democrats – caused me to begin work on a book about the Ronald Reagan myth.

As I've said before in another context: "I'm sure that it won't come as a shock to anyone who knows me that I've never been a fan of the Reagans. The Dear Departed Ronald Reagan was a so-so actor and he never rose that far during his presidency. See e.g., The Race Goes On and Truth is Complicated -- For Republicans. Of course, the fact that he suffered from Alzheimer's during at least a portion of his term in office didn't help." And then, of course, there's Reagan's racist legacy that somehow isn't part of the myth. See Hatefest.

For most people (even some Democrats, I'm afraid), however, Ronald Reagan has become this mythical, legendary figure. It's nothing more than the great myth at work.

Yet, as I read Bunch's words on Reagan, I was suddenly struck by the thought that the legacy tour that Bush began even before he left office is his attempt to adopt the Reagan model of mythology. As much as I've snickered about Bush's "history will judge my presidency" rap, I realized that the re-writing of history for Bush has only just begun, a la Reagan. Bush was able to sneer at us to the end because he knows the tendency of the American public to forget the past. And then it hit me -- it could happen with him as well if we aren't vigilant. Of course, the Republicans excel at telling tales. After all, the whole myth of modern conservatism is nothing more than a tall tale. See The Faustian bargain.

My husband is an advocate of remembering history and its importance to our future. As he would say, it's important for us to remember the real story. History is not merely a subject we study in high school. It's what happened yesterday -- and the day before.

I ordered my copy of Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future today.

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