How Republicans created the myth of Ronald ReaganWith the Gipper's reputation flagging after Clinton, neoconservatives launched a stealthy campaign to remake him as a "great" president
By Will Bunch
The myth of Ronald Reagan was already looming in the spring of 1997 — when a highly popular President Bill Clinton was launching his second-term, pre-Monica Lewinsky, and the Republican brand seemed at low ebb. But what neoconservative activist Grover Norquist and his allies proposed that spring was virtually unheard of — an active, mapped-out, audacious campaign to spread a distorted vision of Reagan's legacy across America.
In a sense, some of the credit for triggering this may belong to those supposedly liberal editors at the New York Times, and their decision at the end of 1996 to publish that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. survey of the presidents. The below-average rating by the historians for Reagan, coming right on the heels of Clintons’ easy reelection victory, was a wake-up call for these people who came to Washington in the 1980s as the shock troops of a revolution and now saw everything slipping away. The first Reagan salvos came from the Heritage Foundation, the same conservative think tank that also had feted the 10th anniversary of the Reagan tax cut in 1991. After its initial article slamming the Times, the foundation’s magazine, Policy Review, came back in July 1997 with a second piece for its 20th anniversary issue: “Reagan Betrayed: Are Conservatives Fumbling His Legacy?”
The coming contours of the Reagan myth were neatly laid out in a series of short essays from the leaders of the conservative movement: that the Gipper deserved all or at least most of the credit for winning the Cold War, that the economic boom that Americans were enjoying in 1997 was the result of the Reagan tax cut (and not the march toward balanced budgets, lower interest rates and targeted investment), and that the biggest problem with the GOP was, as the title suggested, not Reagan’s legacy but a new generation of weak-kneed leaders who were getting it all wrong. The tone was established by none other than Reagan’s own son, Michael, now himself a talk-radio host, who wrote: “Although my father is the one afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, I sometimes think the Republicans are suffering a much greater memory loss. They have forgotten Ronald Reagan's accomplishments — and that is why we have lost so many of them.”
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