Some American political figures lose a lot of their stature when the immediate experience of them fades and their legacy is viewed from a broader and higher perspective. Others have reputations that ascend to Olympian heights when they are compared to mediocrities before and after them.
The most problematic figures are those that have a devoted cult following that aggressively massages the facts and shapes the collective “memories” of its hero. That is undoubtedly true of the 40th president of the United States, whom contemporary conservatives continue to cite as the cause of beneficent developments more than a quarter-century after his presidency, and who enjoys an esteem and a posthumous authority of a sort usually earned by the founders of religious traditions.
Michael O’Donnell is tired of the hagiography, and so expects a sort of demythologization from serious biographers, like Reagan’s latest, E. W. Brands. He is disappointed by Reagan: The Life because it is so uneven in its assessment of its subject, and uncritical when it comes to Reagan’s supposed Big Claim of having ended–or as his acolytes would say, “won”–the Cold War. O’Donnell’s review for WaMo seeks to set the fuller record straight, which leads him to adjudge Reagan as having a decidedly mixed legacy, in no sense comparable to that of the president Brands and so many others posit as his equal, Franklin Roosevelt.
[I]t is not possible to evaluate a president without examining the substance of his policies. And substantively, Reagan does not warrant mention in the same breath as Roosevelt. Not by miles. Domestically, Roosevelt saved the nation from an existential threat (the Great Depression), while Reagan merely steered it out of a funk (the 1970s). Roosevelt enacted structural reforms to protect the most vulnerable members of society, from the unemployed to the infirm to the elderly. Reagan systematically set about dismantling those reforms and deregulating the economy, leaving everyone to fend for themselves. Reagan also forged the unholy alliance between the Republican Party and the evangelical right: a marriage that continues to infect the United States with intolerance and anti-science thinking. The government-is-the-enemy mind-set that pervades the right today comes to us from Barry Goldwater via Ronald Reagan. As our roads, bridges, and schools fall apart around us, we have them to thank.
O’Donnell also notes that Brands’ account of Reagan’s foreign policy legacy, which generally supports the “he won the Cold War” claim, contains a lot of strange omissions (though Brands does fully air the Iran-Contra affair, which damaged Reagan’s approval ratings significantly while he was actually president), and some very important consequences of his presidency, like his impact on the federal judiciary, are barely mentioned.
Brands does earn higher marks from O’Donnell for his analysis of Reagan’s legendary communications skills. But I cannot imagine a better explanation than that offered by Rick Perlstein in his 2014 book, The Invisible Bridge (reviewed here by yours truly last November), which is less a biography of Reagan than a highly informed account of how Reagan’s life perfectly prepared him to fulfill a particular political and cultural role during the troubled 1970s. Perlstein’s Reagan is a man whose self-indoctrination in the folk myths of previous generations gave him a special skill in persuading Americans to impose those myths on contemporary political challenges, and to join him in self-deception. In that respect his spell has continued from beyond the grave, not only for his worshipful ideological and partisan successors, but for his biographers.