Reagan's Legacy: Too Much Credit? Criticism?

Since Ronald Reagan's death in 2004, his stature has continued to rise among conservatives and the Tea Party movement as well as with the general public and even President Obama. Liane Hansen talks with Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer about Ronald Reagan's presidential legacy.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Since Ronald Reagan's death in 2004, his stature has continued to rise among conservatives and the Tea Party movement as well as with the general public. President Obama also has said admiring things about the 40th president of the United States.

To discuss the legacy of Ronald Reagan, Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, joins us from our New York Bureau. Welcome to the program.

Professor JULIAN ZELIZER (History, Public Affairs, Princeton University): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: What do you consider to be the hallmarks of his legacy?

Prof. ZELIZER: Well, part of the legacy is ideological. He helped to shift American politics to the right. He articulated the ideas of conservatism better than almost any other politician.

Some of his legacy is about policy. He pushed for policies including tax cuts, deregulation and a very hawkish stand toward the Soviet Union until the end of his presidency that I think remain integral to the Republican Party and have shaped American politics since.

And finally, in terms of the presidency: he came into office at a time many people didn't think well of presidents. It was after Watergate, after Vietnam, after Carter, and he restored - ironically - some of the glamour and the romance with the American presidency that had been lost in the past decade.

HANSEN: Today, how hard is it, do you think, to separate the myths from the realities of his time in office?

Prof. ZELIZER: Extraordinarily difficult. You hear all the time people talking about aspects of his presidency, which don't match what you see if you go back and study the record and look at newspapers or archives at the time. There's been a lot of mythmaking with Ronald Reagan, and like many presidents we've turned him into something he wasn't and often remembered politics that didn't exist in the period and use it today for our memory and for political purposes.

But I think there's a big difference between how we remember him and what happened in the 1980s.

HANSEN: Give us an example of a myth and then what's the reality.

Prof. ZELIZER: Well, one example is many conservatives praise Ronald Reagan as the purest of conservatives, someone who had a set of ideas including no government is usually better and that overseas you always had to be hawkish. But in fact, Reagan was a politician too, and he made many compromises during his presidency. He increased taxes in 1983, he backed off cutting many social programs, like Social Security, and in the end of his presidency he did what he always said should never be done: he negotiated with the Soviet Union over an arms agreement.

So, the politician in him is often, you know, not recalled by conservatives in the current era.

HANSEN: Let me ask you, though: he's praised for shrinking the size of the government. How much of that did he actually accomplish?

Prof. ZELIZER: He didn't. The government doesn't shrink during Reagan's presidency; it continues to expand. There is really very little that's cut. Some programs are not funded as much as people hoped. Some agencies are gutted, such as environmental programs. But overall, government doesn't just survive the Reagan presidency; it thrives during the Reagan presidency. And we're not just talking about national security.

HANSEN: So, what difference does it make to today's politics how Ronald Reagan's philosophy and accomplishments are seen?

Prof. ZELIZER: Well, I think it's very important. He is a founding myth for conservatives. So, for the Tea Party movement, for the Republican Party, I think he's essential. You know, you always need a founder so that you can have a strong set of arguments. Democrats had FDR; conservatives have Ronald Reagan. And I think it just helps to craft a story, a narrative, for the party about what they're about.

And I also think sometimes Democrats find him useful. I think Obama has found him useful to talk about a president who could use the power of oratory effectively and someone who both red and blue America could look back at and see why presidents and politicians can be important. I think Obama uses him in a way Reagan might not have wanted, but he does serve that function.

HANSEN: Julian Zelizer teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University and he joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you very much.

Prof. ZELIZER: Thank you.

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HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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