Saturday, February 14, 2009

One Person's Myth Is Another's Mission

If you have iTunes, download this conversation between "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross and Will Bunch, who argues in a new book, Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future, that Reagan's tax cuts didn't end the 1981-83 recession and that his tough policies vis a vis the Soviet Union didn't end the Cold War.

On the tax cuts, scholars and politicians differ. As for bringing down the Soviets without a nuclear war, a long line of postwar Presidents share the credit, with Richard Nixon perhaps due more than most. But Reagan's hard line just as Moscow was going broke didn't hurt. I won't pre-judge Bunch's arguments, because I haven't read them. Nor did I hear about them on "Fresh Air," because Gross, usually a pretty penetrating interviewer, accepted them as axioms and spent most of her time asking how today's GOP politicians use their manufactured view of the Reagan legacy to further their nefarious goals. For the high crime of wanting to cut our income taxes, Gross and Bunch single out Grover Norquist for special opprobrium as an example of "a new, aggressive breed of conservative." Somebody get out the Lysol!

Ever the pro, Gross rectified the imbalance by inviting historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited the Reagan diaries and thinks 40 was one of the top Presidents of the 20th century, to address Bunch's theories. Said Brinkley:
I don't think it's so much as a myth. I think Presidents have legacies, and they get advocates. There's people that believe Theodore Roosevelt was great, or FDR was great, or Kennedy, or Reagan. And it's...reasonable to think that people want to admire Ronald Reagan. I think the distortion comes when people leave the history books and try to create saints out of people. Ronald Reagan was not a saint. He was a good President for his times. He was good because there was a kind of malaise in the country due to double-digit inflation, due to the hostages in Iran, due to the excesses of the Great Society, or at least the misappropriation of funds going on for government programs. Taxes were being raised left and right. So we were naturally going to find a force in this country to try to bring us back in the right direction. Reagan was that. Even Barack Obama, during the campaign trail, had nice things to say about Ronald Reagan....
Brinkley went on to advise Obama, whom he characterized as a TR-style progressive, to resist the lure of the middle way and live out his destiny, just as Reagan lived out his.

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