EDITOR’S NOTE: Phawker is proud to bring you this excerpt from Daily News scribe/Attytood blogger-in-chief Will Bunch’s soon-to-publish Tear Down This Myth: How The Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics And Haunts Our Future, a meaty, pointed dissection of the dream factory mythologizing of Ronald Reagan’s presidency — how this is being done, why, and the impact such historical revisionism has on our current politcal landscape. The short answer to all the above can be found the following quote from George Orwell, which kicks off the book:
‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'” — George Orwell, 1984
The long answer, in part, is as follows:
There has always been a place for mythology in American democracy – the hulking granite edifices of the Capitol Mall in Washington are a powerful testament to that – but this nation has arguably never seen the kind of bold, crudely calculated and ideologically driven legend-manufacturing as has taken place with Ronald Reagan. It is a myth machine that has been spectacularly successful, launched in the mid-1990s when the conservative brand was at a low ebb. It has operated not in secrecy but at a low enough frequency that its central premise has infiltrated our current politics to the extent that few bothered to protest at the bizarre framing or misstatements of events like the Simi Valley debates.
The docudrama version of the Gipper’s life story, successfully sold to the American public, helped to keep united and refuel a right-wing movement that consolidated power while citing Reaganism – as separate and apart from the flesh-and-blood Reagan – for misguided policies from lowering taxes in the time of war in Iraq to maintaining that unpopular conflict in a time of increasing bloodshed and questionable gains. Despite what viewers saw and heard in the 2008 campaign, the modern conservative agenda is not based on the once sentient flesh-and-blood Ronald Reagan who ruled America a generation ago. Instead, a brand new Ronald Reagan was cast out of bronze — just like the cowboy model with the Stetson hat at the Simi Valley library entrance — in order to fit the modern conservative agenda, and cover up its flaws.
A more factual synopsis of the Reagan presidency might read like this: That Reagan was a transformative figure in American history, but his real revolution was one of public-relations-meets-politics and not one of policy. He combined his small-town heartland upbringing with a skill for story-telling that was honed on the back lots of Hollywood into a personal narrative that resonated with a majority of voters, but only after itwhen tapped into something darker, which was white middle class resentment of 1960s unrest. His story arc did become more optimistic and peaked at just the right moment, when Americans were tired of the “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years and wanted someone who promised to make the nation feel good about itself again. But his positive legacy as president today hangs on events that most historians say were to some great measure out of his control: An economic recovery that was inevitable, especially when world oil prices returned to normal levels, and an end to the Cold War that was more driven by internal events in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe than Americans want to acknowledge.
His 1981 tax cut was followed quickly by tax hikes that you rarely hear about, and Reagan’s real lasting achievement on that front was slashing marginal rates for the wealthy – even as rising payroll taxes socked the working class. His promise to shrink government was uttered so many time that many acolytes believe it really happened, but in fact Reagan expanded the federal payroll, added a new cabinet post, and created a huge debt that ultimately tripped up his handpicked successor, George H.W. Bush. What he did shrink was government regulation and oversight, which critics have linked to a series of unfortunate events from the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s to the sub-prime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 helped paper over some less noble moments in foreign policy, from trading arms for Middle East hostages to an embarrassing retreat from his muddled engagement in Lebanon to unpopular adventurism in Central America. The Iran-contra scandal that stemmed from those policies not only weakened Reagan’s presidency when it happened, but it arguably undermined the respect of future presidents for the Constitution because he essentially got away with it. Over the course of eight years, the president that some want to enshrine on Mount Rushmore rated just barely above average for modern presidents in public popularity.
PHAWKER: The first question would be why write a book dismantling Reagan mythos on eve of the Age of Obama? Perhaps the opening quote from Orwell about “he who controls the past, controls the future” answers that question. Are you trying to erase the brightly lit shiny, happy path back to Reaganism that the GOP will invariably beseech us to return to the first time Obama stumbles? Saying, in essence, you can’t go home again, because there’s no there there?
WILL BUNCH: Obama may be the new commander-in-chief, but he didn’t and couldn’t remove the permanent pundit class in Washington, the so-called Gang of 500. This is a generation that came of age during the Reagan years and has adopted as an orthodoxy that America is a center-right nation. They will amplify the calls by Republicans in Congress to “stay the course” of Reaganism – that taxes can only be cut, the people who believe in climate change or limited oil are “doom-and-gloomers,” or that the only approach to foreign policy is to “tear down this wall.” That’s why it’s still important to undermine the myth of Ronald Reagan.
PHAWKER: Nixonland author Rick Perlstein’s astute observation that creating a idealized theme park version of an iconic past presidency is a sure sign a party has run out of ideas for the present and the future rings with a damning truth when applied to both the Dems and JKF and the GOP and The Gipper. But if nothing else, Obama’s ascendancy seems proof that the relevance of political ideology is in fact cyclical, not linear with a fixed endpoint — that like fashion they constantly go in and out of style depending on circumstance and events on the ground. Would you agree?
WILL BUNCH: Yes and no. One issue I deal with in the book is that modern communications and advertising techniques, especially as applied to politics, have really changed since Reagan introduced the Age of the Photo Op. The ability of Reagan acolytes like Grover Norquist to reduce political complexities to appealing soundbites is why the Reagan myth remains insidious, even in an Age of Obama. Remember, JKF famously proclaimed that he was a liberal and Reagan was an unabashed conservative, but Obama seems interested in grabbing for the mantle of centrism, afraid of how the permanent government will deal with him if he drifts too far left.
PHAWKER: Do you see Obama’s rise as the pendulum swinging back, or the pendulum swinging in a different direction, again pushed by circumstance and events on the ground? Or do you see the pendulum, as it were, only capable of swinging one of two ways, left or right? Do you foresee a time when GOP ideology (let the rich eat cake, and the crumbs that fall shall be plenty for the lower classes) and tactics (fear, division, thinly-veiled racism, flagrant demonizing of gays) seem wise, relevant and useful to the majority of the American electorate?
WILL BUNCH: I didn’t have a chance to address this in the book (which was written before the election) but a key factor in the success of Obama is a steady rise of rationalism, and of education and merit-based achievement frequently becoming the dividing line between the two parties. (The high-tech regions of North Carolina and Virginia are what pushed those states into the blue column, for example) Because people are becoming more sensible and more attracted to rationalism when it comes to issues like climate change, it will be very tough for the GOP to make a comeback as now constituted.
PHAWKER: Do you think the extremism of the Bush-Cheney years have helped to brighten the halo over Reagan because they make the 80’s seem benign in comparison?
WILL BUNCH: Not initially, but maybe now. One of the many forgotten elements of the Reagan presidency was that he did govern more from the center from about 1986 to the end of his presidency; he had to, because he was politically weakened by Iran-Contra and because Democrats regained full control of Congress. In those years he pushed nuclear arms control and named centrist Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court after the Robert Bork fiasco. It’s why Reagan received a bump in popularity at the end of his second term. Bush went out on a low note because he never changed either his style or more importantly his substance.
PHAWKER: Changing the subject to the state of American newspapering, it seems to me what is crippling the industry’s current model for slowly migrating from print to online is a gaping disconnect between what advertisers are willing to pay to advertise online versus what they were once willing to pay to advertise in print, even if the number of online readers/hard copies printed is roughly the same. Ideally the print balloon would deflate at roughly the same rate that the online balloon would inflate. But the reality is that the online balloon is not keeping pace — in terms of ad revenue generated, at least — and there are no guarantees that it will ever become as large as the print balloon once was. Would you agree and if so how do you propose to fix it? And is this the fault of American journalism or the businessmen who own it? Is it time for newspapers to become non-profit entities, like the BBC or public radio?
WILL BUNCH: The solution is probably a hybrid – non-profits could fund appropriate areas, like local investigative reporting, while ad revenue could subsidize some of the more popular journalists to keep working. But it’s hard to imagine a model that sustains an enterprise at the same level of employment as now at the Daily News and Inquirer. And it’s hard to turn a battleship around; a start-up enterprise would have a much better chance of perfecting the new model.