Myth and memory: The battle over Reagan's legacy

SIMI VALLEY, CALIFORNIA Nearly one-third of the U.S. population today was born after Ronald Reagan left the White House. They'll never have any personal memory of Reagan, and millions more remember him just as the old guy who was president when they were little. Whatever opinions they have of Reagan likely will be shaped by someone else — teachers, historians, the media.

It's no wonder that a battle is under way for the 40th president's legacy.

After a weekend of events commemorating Reagan's 100th birthday in his home of Southern California, it's clear that the guardians of Reagan's legacy — the veterans of his administration, the younger conservatives who study his every move and the Republicans who devoutly hope another Reagan will arrive on the scene as soon as possible — aren't quite sure how to fight the fight. They've worked hard to remind the world that Reagan stood for policies like lower taxes, less regulation and a strong defense. Yet increasingly in the public conversation they have seen Reagan portrayed simplistically as a genial pragmatist from a less divided time in our nation's politics.

“These days, at a distance of more than a generation, you hear even liberal-leaning commentators reminiscing about the Reagan years in a way that doesn't always ring true to me,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said at the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara on Saturday. “They speak of it as a gentler time in politics, when supposedly debates were more cordial and opponents on Capitol Hill were unfailingly civil and respectful toward the president. I hope I'm not disillusioning anybody, but I don't quite remember it that way.”

Veterans of Reagan's administration remember the vicious fights that took place between the president and Democrats in Congress. They also remember the battles inside the Reagan White House and the Republican Party. Reagan emerged (mostly) victorious from those conflicts not because he was an affable fellow but because he combined a set of bedrock principles with great political skills.

It's those principles, Reagan loyalists fear, that are being lost in the general canonization of Reagan. That's been especially true in recent days, when they've been amazed to hear Barack Obama described as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Time magazine's latest cover story explained how “Obama is fashioning his own presidency to follow the Gipper's playbook,” and after Obama's State of the Union speech, commentators on ABC, CBS and NBC all proclaimed his message “Reaganesque.”

“This is really in some ways silly,” says Edwin Meese, who served under Reagan both in California and in Washington. “I think President Obama may be trying to learn from Ronald Reagan — I'll give him credit for that — but unfortunately everything he is doing policy-wise is directly the opposite of Ronald Reagan, at least as far as domestic policy is concerned.” Meese is happy to list the examples — taxes, regulation, federal spending, monetary policy — in which Obama is nothing like Reagan.

So how can conservatives teach Reaganism to a post-Reagan world? Their biggest resource is the Reagan Library, here in Simi Valley, which officials say attracts between 350,000 and 450,000 visitors a year. The Library's exhibits on Reagan's presidency begin with what might be called a 1970s Hall of Horrors. The walls are covered with bold-letter reminders of the bad old days before Reagan: RECESSION. MISERY INDEX. STAGFLATION. IRANIAN HOSTAGE CRISIS.

For conservatives, the point is to show visitors that Reagan put an end to those Carter-era maladies by the principled application of conservative policies and that he achieved his greatest goal, winning the Cold War, in the same way — over the opposition of many Democrats and the doubts of some of his own advisors. But that message is soft-pedaled at the library; you'd never get an idea that the political fights of the 1980s were as tough as they were.

For a more rigorous examination of Reagan's conservatism, you'd have to drive an hour up the road to the small museum at the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara. It's run by the conservative Young America's Foundation, and it's where about 7,500 visitors a year get a sense of Reagan's deeply conservative convictions.

But even if you combine the attendance of the library and the Ranch Center — what are those numbers compared to the mass-audience media outlets telling us that Reagan was just a nice, sunny guy and that even Barack Obama is Reaganesque? The guardians of Reagan's legacy are working hard, but they're up against some very long odds.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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