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Ronald Reagan's Liberal Legacy

The 40th President learned to compromise --something present-day conservatives don't acknowledge


On Saturday, June 5, Ronald Reagan, the nation's 40th president, died after a long struggle with Alzheimer's. He was 93, and the many tributes to his life and career had begun even before he died.

It's not uncommon, when a figure of Reagan's stature passes away, for the media to prepare tributes and obituaries in anticipation of the event. But in the case of Ronald Reagan, the magnitude of this ritual has eclipsed anything that preceded it. As long as five years ago, the three main newsweeklies had locked up eminent presidential historians to write his valedictories. The conservative Heritage Foundation had underwritten a multimedia Reagan legacy project, which was cued up and awaiting word of his death. The major networks and the History Channel had prepared exhaustive documentaries, many of which were airing within hours of the announcement of the former president's death.

But the clearest indicator of Reagan's importance can be found at the bookstore. The last few years have brought an avalanche of Reagan biographies, from John Harmer's Reagan: Man of Principle to Peter Schweizer's Reagan's War to Peter Wallison's Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency. They join such recent fare as William F. Buckley Jr.'s Ronald Reagan: An American Hero, Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King, and Dinesh D'Souza's Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, themselves just a fraction of the 427 listings on, many of them gauzy tributes, each striving to bestow an encomium more noble and gallant than the last. Indeed, what is so striking about these books -- besides their sheer number -- is their collective determination to exalt Reagan as the heroic embodiment of American conservatism.

This is no accident. In fact, there is an active campaign to nail into place a canonical version of Reagan's life and career. Energetic conservatives have organized a drive to glorify the former president by trying to do everything from affixing his name to public buildings in each of the nation's 3,066 counties to substituting his face for Alexander Hamilton's on the $10 bill. A similar dynamic applies here. Many of these hagiographies are written by noted conservative authors (Buckley, Noonan, D'Souza) or former Reagan staffers (Wallison, Martin Anderson, Michael Deaver), under the auspices of conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (Wallison), the Hoover Institution (Anderson and Schweizer), and the Heritage Foundation (Stephen F. Hayward's The Age of Reagan, the first of two volumes).

One would have to go back to FDR to find a comparable example of a president portrayed in such consistently glowing terms -- and the swashbuckling triumphs depicted in these books mythologize Reagan to a degree which exceeds even that. As one might expect, most gloss over or completely avoid mentioning the many embarrassing and outright alarming aspects of his presidency: from consulting astrologers to his fixation with biblical doom to the tortured rationalizations that enabled him to believe that he never traded arms for hostages. But they also do something else. Most of his conservative biographers espouse a Manichaean, black-and-white worldview in which Reagan's constancy in the face of liberal evils is the key to his greatness. But to sustain such an argument requires more than simply touting (and often exaggerating) his achievements, considerable though some of them were. The effort to gild Reagan's legacy also seems to demand that any accomplishment that didn't explicitly advance conservative goals be expunged from his record. And so they have been.

Reagan is, to be sure, one of the most conservative presidents in US history and will certainly be remembered as such. His record on the environment, defense, and economic policy is very much in line with its portrayal. But he entered office as an ideologue who promised a conservative revolution, vowing to slash the size of government, radically scale back entitlements, and deploy the powers of the presidency in pursuit of socially and culturally conservative goals. That he essentially failed in this mission hasn't stopped partisan biographers from pretending otherwise. (Noonan writes of his 1980 campaign pledges: "Done, done, done, done, done, done, and done. Every bit of it.")

A sober review of Reagan's presidency doesn't yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today. Federal government expanded on his watch. The conservative desire to outlaw abortion was never seriously pursued. Reagan broke with the hardliners in his administration and compromised with the Soviets on arms control. His assault on entitlements never materialized; instead he saved Social Security in 1983. And he repeatedly ignored the fundamental conservative dogma that taxes should never be raised.

All of this has been airbrushed from the new literature of Reagan. But as any balanced account must make clear, Reagan acceded to political compromises as all presidents do once in office -- and on many occasions did so willingly. In fact, however often unintentionally, many of his actions as president wound up facilitating liberal objectives. What the current conservatives' clamor of adulation is seeking to deny is that beyond his conservative legacy, Ronald Reagan has bequeathed a liberal one.