Tear Down This Myth and The Man Who Sold the World

By Will Bunch
By William Kleinknecht

In the postscript to his very angry and highly original examination of school and workplace shootings in America, Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Regan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond, author Mark Ames goes a little postal himself on the memory of the Great Communicator. The occasion for his riff is a website posting someone had made about a recent trip to the Reagan library, and their registration of respect for Reagan’s smashing of the air-traffic controllers union. It is precisely this attitude of submissive reverence among those who “prostrate themselves before Reagan’s corpse” that Ames can’t abide:

What the hell is wrong with us? Have we lost all our dignity? Why is it that in those rare, exceptional cases when Americans take up arms against the malice that Ronald Reagan bequeathed us we only turn on each other, in our workplaces, our post offices and schools, rather than turning on the real villains in this tale? Why did we let Ronald Reagan die calmly in his sleep, at age ninety-three, almost a quarter century after he destroyed everything decent in America? This book is an attempt to dig up Reagan’s remains, hang them upside down from the nearest palm tree, and subject him, at last, to a proper trial.

In a similar spirit of critical exhumation, albeit not as strongly worded, these two new books by Will Bunch and William Kleinknecht examine the Reagan years and all that they engendered. As both titles indicate, the emphasis is on getting beyond the image and the myth to expose a real story of distortion and betrayal. This is not as easy as it sounds, since image was a large part of what Reagan was all about. Furthermore, since his retirement there has been a small industry at work revising the historical record and burnishing the Reagan legacy. Only geological considerations seem to have (temporarily) put a halt to plans for carving another craggy head on Mt. Rushmore. But behind the larger-than-life Wizard of Oz face projected on the screen was there ever anything more than an “amiable dunce” eating jelly-beans, taking long naps, and quietly slipping into a state of disconnected, senile befuddlement?

In Tear Down This Myth Will Bunch focuses on a number of particular myths, or bits of “magical thinking,” central to Reagan’s rehabilitation. (And one notes, in passing, that it is a rehabilitation. When he left office, Reagan rated just barely above average in terms of public popularity. Mt. Rushmore and all the rest came later.) The main targets of skeptical analysis are the claims that Reagan fought against big government and high taxes, won the Cold War, and turned the economy around. Facts, however, are stupid . . . that is, stubborn things.

Stubborn facts puncture the myths. Reagan increased the size of government and raised taxes all but one of his years in office. If anything he may have retarded the end of the Cold War, which was winding down anyway. And as for the economy, few experts think the president has much to do with its booms and busts. But then, after the myths have been torn down one is left wondering what, if anything, Reagan and Reaganism really stood for. What truly distinguished the “Reagan 80s” from what came before and after?

The answer is, a lot less than you might think.

The so-called “consensus interpretation” of American history (popularized in the work of Richard Hofstadter) holds that in any historical period there is an implied consensus among different political parties and personalities, even on what seem to be the most divisive issues. In modern parlance such a view is usually expressed in the form of a critique of the political system that sees both major political parties as essentially offering the same set of policies with different labels. Hofstadter’s thesis has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, but reading these books on Reagan, both determined to make the case that the Gipper was a real difference-maker (albeit in a mostly negative way), one is impressed by how well the consensus model holds up.

The revolutionary break should have been clearest from what came before. Jimmy Carter wore a sweater in the White House for god’s sake, and presided over a period of national “malaise” (not his word, but it stuck). Reagan, in contrast, was upbeat and pure Hollywood. But these are mere style points. What of the substance? In domestic policy Carter was a fan of deregulation and began the trend in that direction (deregulating the airlines in 1979, for example), though this is often touted as a cornerstone of the Reagan revolution. It was also Carter who installed the uber-conservative Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve, ushering in a period of regressive tight money policy. In terms of foreign affairs Carter was a hawk, declaring in the Carter Doctrine that the entire Persian Gulf was henceforth to be regarded as American property (an idea with a real legacy). Taking an even wider view, to say that Reagan won the Cold War by anything exceptional he did – or said, assuming his words had some magical power – is to ignore the way his policies were just an extension, and indeed if anything a less bellicose extension, of American foreign policy since Truman.

What of what came after? Was Reagan an anomaly, someone whose vision was betrayed by later presidents? Not at all. Note the continuity implied in Ames’s subtitle: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond. Or in Barack Obama’s contentious claim, made on the campaign trail in 2008, that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not.” In other words, Clinton was simply furthering the Reagan revolution, not changing its course. This was literally the case with financial deregulation. Reagan drafted legislation to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act (separating commercial and investment banks), but it took his protégé in this respect to pass it and truly pave the way for the present financial crisis. The economic inequality that many of his fiercest critics took to be a hallmark of the Reagan years would actually increase under Clinton, further “betraying” Main St. America. Indeed Clinton in many ways out-Reaganed Reagan, managing to shrink government and cut spending, goals that remained only gleams in Reagan’s eyes during his two terms.

For William Kleinknecht the “essence of Reaganism” was its emphasis on advancing the interests of big business, a coup d’état of the rich. By gutting the public sector and advancing the cause of deregulation, “Ronald Reagan, the Great Enabler, ushered in a disturbing new order by clearing away barriers to the final conquering of the human soul by the corporation.” And yet even here we are talking about a difference in emphasis and degree rather than a wholesale makeover of the American experiment. Granted, with Reagan things seemed to get worse. This was the era of Wall Street and “greed is good.” Reagan would lead by simply getting out of the way. One could call it lazy-faire:

It is true that Congress deregulated more industries during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton than it did in the Reagan-Bush years. But that hardly tells the whole story. Reagan achieved deregulation merely by ordering the bureaucracy to stop enforcing the regulations that already existed and by filling the government’s ranks with people who had little inclination to interfere with the private sector. Why fight costly legislative battles when the same result could be achieved through executive inertia? Reagan changed the role of government from that of watchdog to lapdog without even bothering to consult the Congress.

But despite making a persuasive (and at times even shocking) case for the effectiveness of Reagan’s ineffectiveness, Kleinknecht still leaves the question of whether there was anything radically different about Reagan in terms of the business-government partnership that has ruled the United States at least since the Gilded Age.

Take the example of a solidly progressive issue like the environment. I have to admit Will Bunch surprised me in his conclusion, blaming Reagan primarily for dropping the ball on the related issues of the environment and energy independence. As I’ve suggested before, I think it’s likely we’ll look back on these same issues as the greatest failings of the Bush (II) years. Bunch pushes things back to the Reagan administration:

It may have taken until the 2000s for these two issues, global warming and energy independence, to move to the front burner of American politics, but these problems were well-known and growing in the1980s, when Reagan could have done something about them.
But the president whose leadership skills were to become the stuff of oversized bronze statues did nothing.

Fair enough. But to return to the consensus theory: Who did more? Yes, Jimmy Carter sounded the alarm, even installing solar panels on the White House roof (panels that Reagan promptly tore down on arrival). But why? Only because of the OPEC oil shock. When the price of oil came down again, where was the demand for alternative fuels and cutting back? And what did Clinton and his sidekick Mr. Inconvenient Truth do about the environment during their eight years in office? Less than nothing, since they even managed to derail Kyoto. Dubya’s failings I consider to be of another order of magnitude, as the necessity of doing something had become glaringly obvious by 2000. However, as the representative of Big Oil he had different priorities. Finally, as of the time of this writing, despite acres of green campaign rhetoric, it seems clear that Obama has no interest in pursuing any kind of meaningful environmental agenda. So in what way was Reagan’s inaction unique?

For Bunch the essence, and peril, of the Reagan myth is that it suggests that “in a time of growing perils . . . there is no problem that cannot be solved with a mix of optimism and painless policy choices.” But this is simply telling the people what they want to hear, reassuring them that everything is just fine and helping them “feel good about themselves.” Yes, given an oil shock it’s allowable to talk about energy conservation. Just as today, given a shock to the financial system, we can discuss a new, tougher regulatory framework. But this too shall pass. And we can expect, before too long, a return to Reaganism. Which is to say, business as usual.

Review first published June 23, 2010.