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 storytelling that was honed on the back lots of Hollywood into a personal narrative that resonated with a majority of voters, but only after it 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 often 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 subprime 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 Center 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 for 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. He left on a high note—but only after two years of shifting his policy back to the center, seeking peace with the Soviets rather than confrontation, reaching a balanced new tax deal with Democrats, and naming a moderate justice to the Supreme Court. It was not the Reaganism invoked by today’s conservatives.
Tear Down This Myth