TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" - probably the most famous of all President Reagan's quoted phrases. "Tear Down This Myth" is the name of a new book about the Reagan legacy. It argues that the Reagan legacy that is claimed by the right and that was so often referred to by Republican presidential candidates is not an accurate description of the Reagan presidency. According to the book, the legacy version is a myth consciously created by a new, aggressive breed of conservatives to unite and energize the right.
My guest Will Bunch is the author of "Tear Down This Myth." He's a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and the author of its blog, Attytood. Will Bunch, welcome to Fresh Air.
Mr. WILL BUNCH (Senior Writer, Philadelphia Daily News; Blogger, Attytood; Author, "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future"): Thanks for having me, Terry.
GROSS: So what do you consider to be the Reagan myth?
Mr. BUNCH: The Reagan myth is really pretty simple. Basically, people want Ronald Reagan remembered as the man who won the Cold War and as the man who turned the American economy around. In fact, if you go to the Reagan Library, for example, that message is just drilled into you. I mean, there's basically, you see - there's the actual Berlin Wall and there's replicas of the Berlin wall and there's quotes from the Berlin Wall, and you know, so this idea that Ronald Reagan brought down the Berlin Wall and that he cut taxes and saved the American economy. I mean, I think those are really two essential elements.
GROSS: You've described the myth making around President Reagan as a partially very consciously and contrived process. You write about something called the Reagan Legacy Project. What was the project?
Mr. BUNCH: In 1997, Grover Norquist, who's a well-known anti-tax advocate and kind of a nexus point for a lot of conservatives in D.C. who work at think tanks or work for some of these conservative magazines.
GROSS: And he has weekly meetings that bring together conservatives from many different parts of government and religion, and I think industry as well.
Mr. BUNCH: Right, absolutely. I mean, he's kind of...
GROSS: Tries to find common points to build alliances around main agenda items.
Mr. BUNCH: Absolutely. And he's kind of a leader of almost this kind of permanent shadow unelected, you know, conservative, you know, shadow government in D.C. in terms of his influence under the radar screen. That said, I mean, in 1997, you have to go back to that as a time that the conservative movement in this country was really at kind of its low point because Bill Clinton's presidency was at its high point. He'd just been reelected by a huge margin, and the economy was doing great in 1997 on every cylinder. And conservatives were really struggling for a message. You know, they were looking ahead to the 2000 election when Clinton would be leaving office, and they weren't really sure what their message was for the American people. And you know, I think they were trying to get back to their roots, in a sense. Most of them had come to Washington during the Reagan years, and you know, saw them as, you know, kind of spiritual godfather of their movement.
But it was partly because of what I think a dearth of ideas in the present that, you know, in trying to go back to Reagan, they basically remade Reagan in the image of the policies they were trying to portray, which was, you know, militarism, taxes can only be cut, those sorts of things. And the Reagan Legacy Project was this very interesting way to try and get the American people to associate Reagan with greatness.
GROSS: So what was the project?
Mr. BUNCH: Basically, it was to establish memorials to Reagan's legacy as they portrayed it all over the country. And you know, it's interesting. They chose National Airport in Washington, D.C. as a place to start, I guess maybe because so many, you know, liberal media members and members of Congress and their you-point(ph) travel through that airport maybe. But that was their first target, and they introduced a bill to rename the airport as Reagan National Airport, and as we all know, it succeeded. It is now Reagan National Airport.
And you know, this was not long after Reagan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and he had made a very graceful exit from the public stage, and you weren't going to get much opposition to a bill like that. I mean, some Democrats said, well, you know, Reagan's record is kind of vastly overrated and he was very divisive, but I'm not going to oppose this bill.
The thing is the Ronald Reagan legacy movement wanted to replicate this all over the country. I mean, their stated goal was to rename something for Ronald Reagan whether it was a library or a post office or a middle school in every county of America. That's more than 3,000 counties. I mean, they have not achieved that, but the success that they have achieved is pretty remarkable.
GROSS: Does the project still exist?
Mr. BUNCH: Absolutely. It's affiliated with Grover Norquist's anti-tax organization in Washington, and it has a board of directors which is a kind of who's who of, you know, people in the conservative movement who basically date back to the time of Reagan. And it is still active. It is still pushing to make this Friday, February 6th, Reagan's birthday, as Reagan Day nationally. They'd like to see Reagan perhaps put on money, either some sort of currency or have him on the dime alternating with FDR, which would be kind of ironic since you'd have the father of the New Deal and an opponent of the New Deal alternating on dimes. So it's still a very active movement.
GROSS: So how significant do you think the Reagan Legacy Project has actually been in the creation of the Reagan myth? I mean, if what they're doing is naming airports and roads and libraries and medical centers and stuff, how significant is that in creating or recreating what the Reagan story is?
Mr. BUNCH: I argue that it is significant because history is very complex. You know, it was complex as it was happening, and you know, as 20, 30 years pass it becomes even more complicated for busy people to, you know, reflect on the nuances of, you know, 1980s economics and the deficit and what Reagan's real record was. But you know, when you're driving down a road and it's a Ronald Reagan Freeway on a bright, sunny day, it's hard for you not to associate this must have been a great man, you know, to have this road named after him. And in fact, you know, the people with the legacy project basically said that, that we want people to, you know, when they're driving to work or when they're going to the post office or whatever, you know, they will associate Ronald Reagan with greatness. So it was a very conscious effort, and I think on a very subliminal level very successful.
GROSS: Do you think that the Reagan myth was something that was basically consciously created? I mean, one of the points you make in your book is that the Reagan myth has been very helpful for people with a very conservative ideology because they have a hero to point to, they have an image to point to that they can rally around and focus, and it gives the movement a narrative and a hero. How much of that do you think was conscious and how much of it do you think is just a genuine affection for and appreciation of what Reagan accomplished?
Mr. BUNCH: I think it's been very hard for the modern generation of Republicans to develop a leader, you know, who has the kind of charisma that Ronald Reagan has had. And so since nobody's going to really be able to project that kind of charisma, I think it's like, well, I'll borrow it, you know, I'll show that I can be another Ronald Reagan either by showing my loyalty to Reagan, or you know, the current generation, you know, of Republican leaders, the people who are running for president in 2008 were people who were around during the Reagan years.
John McCain, I think, very successfully, he was having a problem with the conservative wing of the party, and so he went to great lengths to call himself a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution, and in fact, he made this claim that seems pretty fantastical that when he was a prisoner of war in Hanoi that somehow word had gotten to him in the POW camp about this inspiring new governor of California named Ronald Reagan.
He also ran an ad attacking Mitt Romney for misrepresenting how much - that Mitt Romney had been a follower of Reagan, and said, if we can't trust Mitt Romney on Ronald Reagan, what else can we trust him on? You know, so it was like fealty to Ronald Reagan was almost more important than discussing the economic crisis or subprime mortgages or the issues that we had today. So I think it's a charisma gap.
What worries me, though, is that to be like Reagan, they're adopting policies of Reagan that don't really fit our current situation. You know, that the low tax, the push for low taxes in the economic stimulus plan I think really traces back from this desire to we're going to follow the Reagan blueprint no matter what.
GROSS: There's a chapter in your book, "Tear Down This Myth," that focuses on President Reagan's funeral and the press coverage of that funeral. Do you think that the press coverage and the way the funeral was produced reflects what you describe as the Reagan myth?
Mr. BUNCH: Absolutely. And you know, you can certainly make the point that some of it is the format. You know, we live in this world of just non-stop cable news where they're looking for a good story, and you know, Reagan but also the Reagan myth is a good narrative. And the people who planned Reagan's funeral were very conscious about the fact that they wanted to use this as kind of the last photo-op. The people who had been Reagan's advance team while he was president basically took over the funeral, and they called it Operation Serenade. And the planners give a very interesting interview to the Wall Street Journal where they said our focus when Reagan was president was always, you know, picture, headline, story. What's the picture, what's the headline and what's the story that the media's going to get out of this event? And they did the same - they consciously did the same thing for Reagan's funeral, that we want the headline, picture and story from this event to be this was the man whowon the Cold War, and this was the man who restored America's greatness.
And you know, they went to great lengths to give the media that storyline, and you had a media setup that was, you know, happy to oblige. And you know, so you saw this wall-to-wall coverage. You saw, you know, non-stop booking of guests who were from Reagan's inner circle, you know, his former speech writers who were going to give you that portrayal of Reagan, and people weren't really going to hear about the more divisive aspects of Reagan's presidency or the aspects of the presidency that were a failure, whether it was the Iran-Contra scandal or the huge deficits.
Part of the problem is, though, you have entire generation or maybe two generations of Americans who don't really have vivid memories of his actual presidency. A lot of people, they're - what they know about Ronald Reagan is what they know from watching that funeral week on TV, and that really - that really was, I think, a defining moment for the Reagan myth.
GROSS: What are your concerns about people who have learned about Reagan from recent media coverage of him like that funeral?
Mr. BUNCH: That when they hear their political leaders saying we need to adopt the policies of Ronald Reagan, you know, Dick Cheney said at one key point during the Bush presidency that Reagan showed that deficits don't matter. And you know, when you have a public that says, you know, the way forward for America is to have a president like Ronald Reagan and then you have leaders who say we're going to do this the way Reagan did it, it makes people more receptive of that message.
You know, yeah, of course, Reagan was that great president. You know, I saw, you know, I remember watching his funeral on TV. You know, why don't - he was right about tax cuts or he was right that it didn't - the deficit didn't really matter, or you know, he was right to call our enemies an evil empire, you know. So I think there's a very strong connection between the way that, you know, conservatives have been able to sell certain policies and the establishment of this myth with the everyday person.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Will Bunch, author of the new book, "Tear Down this Myth: How the Reagan Legacy has Distorted our Politics and Haunts Our Future." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is journalist Will Bunch. His new book, "Tear Down this Myth," argues that the Reagan legacy that is claimed by the right was consciously created by aggressive conservatives to unite and energize the right.
GROSS: You say that the creation of the Reagan myth depends on omitting key parts of the Reagan presidency that were negative, and at the top of your list is the Iran-Contra scandal. Do you think that there was like a conscious attempt to eliminate the Reagan - the Iran-Contra scandal from the story?
Mr. BUNCH: There must be. I mean, if you go to the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, you know, this massive edifice costing millions of dollars that was - is basically a museum to the history of Ronald Reagan. And here you have a scandal that for those of us who were around in the late 1980s know really threatened to bring down his entire presidency for a time.
I mean, can you imagine a Richard Nixon museum that didn't have anything about Watergate? Now, Reagan didn't resign, obviously, but you know, there were - there were articles of impeachment were prepared. That entire year, 1987, was dominated by congressional hearings about the Iran-Contra scandal, which, you know, just for your listeners who don't know, was kind of two elements. One, a cornerstone of Reagan's foreign policy was funding anti-communist rebels in Central America. It became a very controversial program, and Congress passed an act, the Boland Act, which barred the government from spending money for that purpose.
At the same time, things were not going well for the U.S in the Middle East and a number of Americans had been taken hostage in Lebanon under Iranian influence. And this became a big problem for the Reagan administration, and he decided on this policy of doing arms deals with Iran, which was at war with Iraq at that time. And these arms deals would get Iran to use its influence to free the hostages. That didn't exactly work. If you were freed, the more were taken.
In the meantime, as this scheme evolved, they were making money from these arms sales, and they said, let's use this money to secretly fund these rebels in Central America even though Congress had barred them from doing that.
So basically, there were two secret elements - trading arms for hostages and then funding these rebels illegally. And you know, as I said, it led to massive congressional hearings. Reagan's popularity plunged down to like 40 percent, and it's rarely talked about nowadays. It's interesting.
GROSS: Another key part of the Reagan presidency that you say is eliminated from the Reagan myth is how divided America was during his eight years in office.
Mr. BUNCH: Absolutely. You know, when Reagan died in 2004, a number of articles described him as one of the most popular presidents in American history or that, you know, that he left office as one of the most popular presidents we've ever had. The statistical evidence to back that up just isn't there.
You know, people have analyzed the Gallop approval ratings throughout his presidency, and it was average. It was, you know, on the level of Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, you know. Very - presidents who have - you know, Bill Clinton was impeached. You know, the first Bush only served one term and was voted out of office. And that was about the level of Reagan's approval rating. It was way behind Eisenhower, JFK, FDR, Lyndon Johnson had a much higher approval rating. And you know, this reflects the fact that he was a very divisive figure. I mean, certainly he had virtually zero support from African-Americans, for example. You know, his policies were seen as very harmful to black Americans.
GROSS: And also, in terms of creating the Reagan myth, you say things were eliminated that don't fit the conservative ideology. For example, you say, yes, Reagan really slashed taxes, particularly for the wealthy. But later on in his presidency, he increased taxes, and the tax increase is not a part of the Reagan myth.
Mr. BUNCH: Right. Well, Reagan was - he was the great communicator, and he was very good at portraying a broad conservative message to the American people. But when he had to govern, he actually was kind of a great compromiser. I mean, he - he was willing to - to make compromises to get things done. You almost never hear about the fact that he reached a deal with Democrats on social security that basically helped to prop up our social security deficit for a number of years, which actually increased payroll taxes. I mean, middle-class Americans took a big hit from that deal, but that's never talked about. He signed off on some sort of tax increase almost every year of his presidency after his first year, including one in 1982 that was, at the time, the largest tax increase in American history, and it was basically to under-do - undo the fact that they '81 tax cut had gone too far.
GROSS: When President Obama was a presidential candidate, he described Ronald Reagan as a transformative president. President Obama's policies are very different than President Reagan's, but yet you wrote an op-ed mentioning some of the things that you think President Obama could learn from President Reagan. What are some of those things?
Mr. BUNCH: I think the main sense is that even - even though we live in kind of a dire time and we face this, you know, massive economic crisis, Ronald Reagan was very successful in connecting with the American people because of his optimism. You know - you know, he clearly had a strong belief in himself and a belief in America that - that we were a good people and that things would - you know, that a brighter future lay ahead. And you know, which was a message that was surprising to a lot of people in 1980 because interest rates were 21 percent, unemployment was so high.
You know, now we face a similar crisis, and I think people - I think people in an over-arching sense need to hear that, you know, that America is a can-do nation and can still do great things. You know, where he needs to differ greatly, though, is on the policy level, you know, kind of rolling back these policies that have created such a wide gulf between the rich and the middle class, for example.
You know, undoing - you know, unfortunately, I think the optimism led to too much optimism about energy and about the environment that - you know - you know, we're tired of doom and gloom in America, so we're tired of doom and gloom about climate change and we're tired of doom and gloom about the world running out of fossil fuel supplies. Well, those are areas where I think we need some realism. So - but again, I think if President Obama, you know, says we're going to fight climate change or says that we're going to, you know, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, it's a challenge to America's greatness that, you know, that a great nation can respond to this challenge. I think in a way he'll be channeling Reagan message-wise, but you know, to achieve a very different result.
GROSS: Will Bunch, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BUNCH: Oh, thanks Terry. Thanks for having me on. I really enjoyed it.
GROSS: Will Bunch is the author of "Tear Down this Myth." He's the senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and writes its blog, Attytood. We'll hear a different take on the Reagan legacy from historian Doug Brinkley in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.