The Liberal Reagan You Never Hear About

He wasn’t the ideologically pure conservative Republicans make him out to be.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

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In the early 2000s, as advanced Alzheimer’s disease continued to take its toll on Ronald Reagan’s cognitive faculties, a dedicated group of conservative ideologues and anti-tax proselytizers were working overtime to define a cohesive narrative of his presidency and establish a permanent anti-tax Reagan legacy in the collective memory. 

Chief among those in the anti-tax priesthood was Grover Norquist, who was preparing an effort to use Reagan’s eventual death to canonize him as the religion’s patron, Saint Ronnie—the perfect conservative who believed all the diehard orthodoxies of the “Americans for Tax Reform”–type Republicans in the Bush era. The goal? Empower the GOP and justify the anti-tax dogma, which was based more on hagiography than history.

It was around this time that, while working on a Smithsonian Institution First Ladies project, I met Nancy Reagan. In passing, she made it clear that her husband’s death was imminent. I mentioned this shortly thereafter in one of my regular calls with Paul Glastris, the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, of which I was then publisher. We started musing about how the nation would respond to Reagan’s death. Paul thought the magazine needed to prepare. He foresaw a coming tsunami of simplistic, one-sided stories about Reagan and what he meant to America and the conservative movement’s future. That gave him an idea: to puncture that narrative by pointing out all the times Reagan broke from Norquist-style conservative dogma, especially by raising taxes. The magazine was going to preemptively pour water on the effort to airbrush Reagan into some utterly pure avatar of doctrinaire conservatism by highlighting the times when he would have made Walter Mondale proud.

We enlisted one of our brilliant young editors, Josh Green, to do the story. At first he was skeptical of the idea—Reagan, a secret liberal?—but he executed it beautifully. “A sober review of Reagan’s presidency doesn’t yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today,” Josh wrote. “Federal government expanded on his watch. The conservative desire to outlaw abortion was never seriously pursued. Reagan broke with the hardliners in his administration and compromised with the Soviets on arms control.” The list went on. Reagan saved Social Security. He expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit. He responsibly raised taxes three times, despite campaign promises and political pressure. In deed, if not in word, even Reagan recognized that some measures to achieve equity, fairness, and even redistribution not only were necessary, but were the purview of the federal government.

The magazine put the story on the cover of its January 2003 issue, with the cheeky headline “Reagan’s Liberal Legacy.” Josh’s fellow editor Christina Larson commissioned artwork from Fred Harper (now known for his trademark covers for the Week): Reagan in the Oval Office in front of an FDR-era microphone, giving a radio Fireside Chat. I bought the original, and it still hangs in my office.

When Reagan died a year later, the TV and radio waves were filled with conservative pundits, friends of the president, and former White House staffers all expressing paeans to the liberator from liberalism, savior of the free world, and protector of federal frugality. What made them credible was that there was some truth to all those things. They failed, however, to capture the multifaceted nature of the man who was once a Democrat, a union leader, a governor of the largest state in the country, and a believer in the importance of immigration, social mobility, educational opportunity, and fiduciary responsibility. 

The conservative sainthood of Ronald Reagan went on for twenty-four solid hours, until Paul was able to seed the networks with Josh’s cover story. Josh ended up going on all the major news outlets to push back against the Norquist-style mythmaking. As he had put it in the article, “If you believe, as conservatives now do, that raising taxes is always wrong, then it’s hard to admit that Reagan himself did so repeatedly.”

One day shortly after this successful exercise, Paul and I were at the Monthly offices, working on an editorial budget and production schedule for a future issue. We knocked off early to head down to the Mall, where Ronald Reagan’s funeral procession was about to begin. We waded into the deep throngs waiting for the caisson and watching silently as the riderless horse took up the rear. There was deep mourning everywhere and a sincere feeling that both detractors and admirers filled the sidewalks to say good-bye to a man whom they had sometimes hated, had sometimes loved, but perhaps now more completely understood.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.