The Reagan Myth

Posted on August 8, 2014


When your idol is exposed as less than perfect… what do you do? Well, instead of doing some self-reflection, the right has taken to vehemently attacking Rick Perlstein, an historian and author of “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.” According to a Reagan biographer and current Ann Coulter publicist, Craig Shirley claims that Perlstein plagiarized despite that Perlstein cited Shirley’s Reagan biography more than 125 times in the book. Salon and Slate have good takes on the alleged plagiarism.

The broader point is why would the right be so indignant and vehement in their attacks on Perlstein? The answer is fairly obvious – the right’s patron saint is as John Quiggen aptly points out the only key figure movement conservatism can idolize. And, for a historian with impeccable credentials (Perlstein) to show fallibility with Reagan is blasphemy to the right. The only way to salve your wounds for the hardcore right winger is to strike back.

As Story Teller

In The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein explains that Reagan “had a way of telling a story that made it uncheckable.” He’d attribute facts and stories to “magazines” and “polls” without specifying which ones had come across his desk. (If you wonder how the existence of Google might have complicated this, remember what happened when Rand Paul started taking stories from Wikipedia.) Reagan defended Richard Nixon during Watergate so resolutely that the media started to write him off. When Gerald Ford was pursuing détente, Reagan warned that a weak America would “tempt the Soviet Union as it once tempted Hitler and the military rulers of Japan.” Perlstein’s every-news-clip-ever approach rewards a long read; he’ll quote Reagan’s welfare dissembling (a welfare-to-work program helped only 0.2 percent of recipients) and a few chapters later a woman on the street in New Hampshire will praise what Reagan did for those welfare moochers.

As Job Creator

Looking at the substance of Reagan’s tenure in the White House, the good-ole days of Reagan that the right likes to portray are a bit disingenuous when you examine the record. For instance, Krugman discuss Reagan’s economic policy,

“…the economic myth of Reagan is truly remarkable. Everyone on the right knows that Reagan presided over job creation on a scale never seen before or since; but it just isn’t so. In fact, if you look at monthly rates of job creation for the past six administrations, it’s actually startling:

You may have known that Clinton was a better “job creator” than Reagan, but did you know that over the course of the Carter administration — January 1977 to January 1981 — the economy actually added jobs faster than it did under Reagan? Maybe you want to claim that the 1981-82 recession was Carter’s fault (although actually it was the Fed’s doing), so that you start counting from almost two years into Reagan’s term; but in that case why not give Obama the same courtesy? The general point is that the supposed awesomeness of Reagan’s economic record just doesn’t pop out of the data.

With the recent attacks on Perlstein it is quite clear that the Reagan Myth lives on… despite the shakiness of it’s foundations.

Posted in: Economics, Politics