Jeff Shesol: The Reagan Legacy Project

Jeff Shesol, in the NYT (5-22-05):

[Jeff Shesol is the author of ''Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade,'' and was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.]

Just about one year ago, as millions of television viewers watched the sun set in Simi Valley, Calif. -- the terminus of Ronald Reagan's cross-country funeral procession -- the late president's advance men called an end to Operation Serenade, their code name for this national farewell. In a manner that recalled Reagan's time in the White House, every move had been carefully choreographed. This was no ordinary funeral. ''This,'' as one former advance man said, ''is a legacy-building event.''

That work goes on, with Reagan's acolytes still building and burnishing. The Reagan Legacy Project, started in 1997 by the conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist, seeks to name something -- a stadium, a stretch of turnpike, anything -- after Reagan in every state in the union.

The chain bookstores, for their part, now feature a virtual Reagan wing, their shelves stuffed full of character studies, coffee-table confections, speech anthologies, hagiographies and mash notes. Beyond a basic hunger for heroes, this great cascade of Reagan lit reflects a mounting effort to retool the Reagan narrative.

What could be wrong with the old story line? Few modern presidents could boast a better one: Reagan, it is said, was a great communicator, made America proud again, ended the cold war. ''All in all, not bad,'' as Reagan said in his farewell address. ''Not bad at all.''

No, not bad. But for some, still not good enough. ''Great communicator'' sticks in their throats. They detect condescension in the term, a backhandedness, as when one politician calls another a ''great politician.''

A communicator, however great he may be, is not necessarily a thinker. And so a growing number of conservatives are at work on a correction. They do not deny Reagan's persuasiveness, but argue that it was indicative of, and secondary to, a powerful intellect.

The revised story line runs something like this:

Leftish elites, the news media and disgruntled former aides dismissed Reagan as an ''amiable dunce'' (in a well-known epithet of the 1980's). But recently released documents show the clarity, originality and depth of his thinking. Reagan, by this telling, was not simply his party's pitchman, he was its idea man: the Jefferson of modern conservatism, writing its founding documents by hand.

Reagan's intellectual stock has indeed been climbing since the publication, in 2001, of ''Reagan, in His Own Hand,'' a collection of handwritten radio scripts from the mid-to-late 1970's, when Reagan, mostly unaided by speechwriters, tested his arguments on a national audience.

The impressive assortment of subjects in these audio essays (from Namibia to the United States Postal Service to Lee Harvey Oswald), along with their detail, wit and remarkable concision, has, in the view of the biographer Lou Cannon, made ''mincemeat of the idea that Reagan was a dunce, amiable or otherwise.'' ...

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