Philadelphia Daily News senior writer Bunch (Jukebox America: Down Back Streets and Blue Highways in Search of the Country’s Greatest Jukebox, 1994) wants no part of the historical revisionism that would place Ronald Reagan on Mt. Rushmore.
Although Reagan won two landslide White House victories, critics regarded him as either a dangerous ideologue likely to touch off nuclear war or as a detached, lazy executive who presided over an unprecedented era of greed. His administration, notable for its indifference to minorities and hostility toward the environment, also included the Iran-Contra scandal, which might well have resulted in his impeachment, but for Reagan’s personal popularity and the country’s weariness with the four failed presidencies that preceded his. Reagan was also fortunate, Bunch claims, in his afflictions: a failed assassination attempt that unnaturally extended his honeymoon period in office and a ten-year post-presidential descent into Alzheimer’s that nearly immunized him from criticism. The Gipper has receded into history as an uncompromising man of principle, the embodiment of old-fashioned family values who cut taxes, slashed the size of government, supercharged the economy and won the Cold War. Bunch argues that almost none of this is true. He attributes the historical makeover to the concerted efforts of a right-wing myth machine that has sought formally (The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, the Reagan Library) and informally to rewrite the past by eliminating negative references to the Reagan era and awarding Reagan more credit than he deserves for the economic recovery and Cold War victory. His presidency was a triumph of public relations in which photo-ops, soaring language and the president’s personal affability papered over the gap between the Gipper’s rhetoric and actual achievement. It has distorted our politics, Bunch insists, by inspiring nearly every succeeding Republican presidential candidate and, surprisingly, even some Democrats to grasp for a mantle that never truly existed.
For Democrats, a good start on undoing the Reagan legend. For Republicans, an errant shot at a king.