Turning Reagan into a Monument Is Only Going to Hurt the Conservative Cause


Mr. Payne is a member of the History Department at St. Bonaventure University.

Recently there has been a public flap, first reported in the New York Times but subsequently receiving a great deal of attention, over the CBS "biopic" called "The Reagans" that portrays the lives of the former president and first lady. Conservatives protest that the made-for-television movie is unfairly biased against Reagan. In the face of these protests CBS decided air the movie on cable rather than on its primary channel, causing liberals to denounce CBS for caving into political pressure. One might wonder why there is such a concern over a made-for-television movie. On the surface it seems that a made-for-television movie will hardly have a lasting impact on how Americans remember and understand Ronald Reagan. Would it not be more appropriate if presidential legacies were debated in the musty halls of academe over the finer points of policy? There can be no doubt that this will be part of the Reagan legacy debate. However, historical reputations are also formed outside the academy as well as inside it. We need to recognize that history is made in many different ways, especially when it involves the commemoration of a controversial leader.

The movie has become one of the flash points on cable television in the myriad of shows that pit liberals against conservatives. The single most controversial part of the yet-unseen movie is a line in which the movie-Reagan said of those suffering from AIDS, "They that live in sin shall die in sin." A line that script writer Elizabeth Egloff has conceded is fictional but she defends it for raising issues about Reagan's attitudes during the early days of the epidemic. The MSNBC television program "Buchanan and Press," which aired on October 21, was typical of the coverage. The discussion included several themes, including Hollywood's liberalism, focusing on the sensational and the personal to increase profit, and whether or not the AIDS quotation captured the broader reality of Reagan's attitude. The discussion (all the participants served with Reagan in one capacity or another with the exception of co-host Bill Press) was partisan and thoughtful. Buchanan worried that history was being distorted, comparing "The Reagans" to Oliver Stone's JFK, which implied that Lyndon Johnson had used the CIA to murder John Kennedy. Buchanan, implying that there is a higher standard for history, said of the Stone movie: "it's a lie." As the liberal representative, Press argued that the movie could offset the tendency of conservatives to treat Reagan as an icon. Over the course of the discussion it became clear that the participants were struggling with the lines dividing history, commemoration, and politics.

The debate over the movie demonstrates the increasingly narrow gap between popular history, journalism, and politics. As for the focusing on the personal, one has to think that Ronald Reagan the movie star would have understood the celebrity status of modern politicians. The situation improves only slightly with historical figures. The public's huge appetite for history does gravitate toward the personal (and the dramatic). Those who are currently debating the merits of this movie are pundits who know that sensationalism will increase ratings and profit. Ironically the protest over the "liberal" interpretation of Reagan is appearing on shows like "Buchanan and Press," which are based on the premise that ideological debate makes for good ratings.

On another level legacies are important precisely because they provide legitimacy to policies in the here and the now. George W. Bush has positioned himself as the heir to Reagan's policy and image. If Reagan seems cold-hearted, then by implication the compassionate part of Bush's compassionate conservativism dwindles. Similarly, Reagan's defenders wonder if the movie credits his policies for the economic recovery of the 1980s. Why? Again, Bush is pursuing similar economic policies.

There is also a concern that Reagan will not receive credit for winning the Cold War. The current war on terrorism bears striking parallels with the Cold War. Bush's policy of preemptive strikes has been compared to the Truman Doctrine, a Democratic policy that many argue led to the Korea and Vietnam wars. Republicans might prefer a comparison to Reagan's final triumph over the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union.

Finally, it is worth noting that for Republicans, Reagan was the last president to have a useable legacy that can shape their future. The elder Bush's presidency was, in many ways, an extension of Reagan's presidency and, of course, he was defeated after one term. Prior to the Reagan/Bush years the most recent Republican president was Richard Nixon. While Nixon may have rehabilitated his legacy after resigning, his historical reputation is hardly the example that the Republican Party would choose for itself.

While it might pain conservatives to watch "The Reagans," they should realize that the movie also gives them the opportunity to assert their interpretation of history. That Americans are debating the meaning of Reagan's life and presidency speaks to his continued importance. When Americans no longer debate his lasting impact there might very well be agreement, but it will likely also mean that Reagan has lost his relevancy for most people.

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Bob - 11/30/2003

The Cold War ended before the Soviet Union collapsed. The Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan and Eastern Europe and let Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia become independent. And they allowed Germany to re-unite. These actions were due to many factors. In part they were a response to Reagan's policies. But while Reagan's toughness probably played a part in pushing the Soviets in the direction they went, we shouldn't overlook his willingness to cooperate with them and be magnanimous as well.

The Berlin Wall came down under Bush. It was Reagan, however, who demanded it as a condition for Western cooperation.

Bob - 11/30/2003

I fail to see the point of this article. The title makes a claim but I don't see where it is supported in the article.

What is omitted is any concern at all about the accuracy of the mini-series that CBS prepared. It is reported that portrays Nancy Reagan as screaming at the servants. People who know the Reagans say this is totally out of character for Nancy. So why is it included? The only point has to be to paint Nancy as a nasty and unlikeable person.

Likewise it portrays Reagan as a Bible quoter which he was not and as anti-gay which he was not. Long before the gay movement became fashionable, Reagan vetoed a bill passed by the Democrat legislature that would have prohibited gays from teaching in California public schools.

In short, it appears that the whole point of the mini-series was to propagandize. CBS was right to cancel it. No one can do a completely objective job of presenting history. But you can certainly avoid a hatchet job. The people CBS hired for this apparently were not so inclined.

But how on earth do conservatives objecting this risk damage to the conservative movement?

David - 11/24/2003

Well, you can take comfort in the fact that I do think Clinton was a fine president (though he was not a fine man). And I mean that honestly.

Cram - 11/24/2003

I don't know if I would agree neccessarily but in any event, I hope you apply that standard to President Clinton, who won 2 terms and whose VP won the popular vote, and *argueably* would have won the electoral college vote.

"In fact, except for the Leftist haters and Soviet nostalgics, Reagan remains well thought of by most Americans."

Again, I won't disagree, but again, I certainly hope you apply such criteria to Clinton.


David - 11/24/2003

I think any president who can get re-elected to serve a second term, and whose vice-president is then elected after that, can hardly be called a "failure". In fact, except for the Leftist haters and Soviet nostalgics, Reagan remains well thought of by most Americans.

His accomplishments speak for themselves.

Steve Brody - 11/23/2003

Cram, don't start going soft on me,now. :-)

Cram - 11/23/2003

It is also a pleasure to debate someone who prefers sound argument to name-calling and intelligence attacks (which I get far too frequently on this site).

Perhaps I was too harsh on our former President. He had succeses as well as failures, like all Presidents. The fact of the matter, and I freely admit it, is that because I disagree with many of his ideological positions and overall economic policy, I am more inclined to see the negatives rather then the positives.

Reagan, like Clinton, and Bush, was a polorizing figure. Since many of the documents related to his presidency have yet to be released to the public, we shall have to wait for a full analysis of his presidency.

Charles Egan - 11/23/2003

"There is also a concern that Reagan will not receive credit for winning the Cold War."
FYI, Reagan did not win the Cold War. He was no longer president when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. George Bush won the Cold War.

Steve Brody - 11/22/2003

Cram, it is a pleasure to debate with someone who doesn’t take every disagreement as a personal affront.

I certainly accept some of your points regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union. I do believe, however, that Reagan deserves credit for some of the factors you identified. The Afghanistan quagmire, for one. Reagan continued and intensified the support to the Mujahadin, which you identified as a factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Reagan’s firm support of INF in Europe, in my view, also sped up the collapse. As did the Soviet's concern about the SDI. At any rate, I’m speculating as to whether the Soviet Union would ultimately have collapsed if Carter had been re-elected and continued his milk-toast treatment of the Soviets.

As for Beirut, I agree that our departure from Beirut certainly contributed to the Terrorist’s perception that the US “couldn’t take casualties”. This, along with Clinton’s weak response to terrorism, undoubtedly emboldened them to believe we wouldn’t strike back after 9/11. What a surprise it must have been for them.

As for Iran-Contra, I accept your facts, but differ with your conclusion. No one was ever convicted of violating the “Boland Amendment” to the War Powers Act. I believe that there are two reasons for that. One is that what North and Poindexter did was crafted in such a way as to not violate of the “Boland Amendment”. The other is that the “ Boland Amendment “ was of doubtful legality itself. Many legal scholars have argued that the “Boland Amendment “ unconstitutionally usurped the President's authority to conduct foreign policy. Therefore I’m not certain that “criminality” really entered into the Iran-Contra affair, until North and Poindexter decided to lie and mislead Congress. In any event, you quite rightly posted that that no evidence was ever presented proving that Reagan was aware of what was going on.

Reagan certainly had failed policies during his Administration. I think it is too harsh a judgment, however, to call his Administration a failure.

Cram - 11/22/2003

Sometimes I get so discouraged with some of the mindless rants on these posts, let me say it is nice to finally hear from someone who has the knowledge and temperament to debate the points. But I digress…

1) You ask, "What internal events" drove the Soviet Union to extinction.

The Soviet economy actually grew during most of the 1980's, although at a much slower rate then the US. The Cold War's end was spurred by a succession crisis within the Soviet political system itself. When Soviet leader Brezhnev died in 1982, he chose the 68-year-old Andropov to succeed him. When Andropov died two years later, he was replaced by 72-year-old Chernenko. When Chernenko died a year later in 1985, the Politburo finally selected a younger man, Gorbachev (54) who began the reform movement in Russia. Gorbachev was really the first liberal reformer in Soviet History, and almost immediately after began implementing his reforms, the Soviet Union began its collapse. Provinces began demanding their independence, the quagmire in Afghanistan was becoming a Soviet Vietnam, and political rivals vied for power against this relatively weak president. All of these precipitated the collapse and I am inclined to believe that these reforms were destined to end the already besieged empire.

2) In Beirut, "The Marines were there in support of an international Peacekeeping force."

This is very true. They were sent there in 1982 to oversee the Palestinian withdrawal from Lebanon. From its inception, the mission was plagued with problems-and a mounting body count. As the mission stretched into a year, some began to question whether Reagan had a solid policy aim in Lebanon. In his statement on October 23, President Reagan vowed to keep the Marines in Lebanon, but 4 months later, he announced the end of the American role in the peacekeeping force.
For better or for worse, the country tends to assign blame on Presidents who emerge victorious and credit those Presidents when troops succeed. As far as I am concerned, Beirut was a failure in the same way that Somalia was, if for no other reason than it marked a turning point in the minds of terrorists, whose tactics against both American interests and our allies sharpened significantly after seeing what it can achieve.

3) As for Iran-Contra, Reagan’s only defense was that he had no idea what was going on within the highest level of government, and the final congressional report was split along partisan lines with Democrats saying that he knew what was happening and was isolating the law, and Republicans who say he did not know. Of everything Reagan did in his entire Presidency, I find this episode to be the most indicting. Just as many conservatives believe that Clinton was a criminal even though he was never convicted (and in many instances, not even charged with the crime they wanted to get him on) so too do I consider Reagan a criminal even if he faced no charges.

4) As far as the Reagan doing nothing to end inflation, I cede defeat, you are absolutely right and I regret having made such a charge.

You will get no argument from me that Carter was probably one of the most ineffective Presidents in the post-WWII era (although I attribute much of the economic problems on the inflation that had begun the in the wake of Vietnam as well as the energy crises).

Steve Brody - 11/22/2003

Cram, I’ve got to disagree with some of your points.

“Reagan’s foreign policy was a failure. His spending the Soviets into oblivion is an important success that I do not deny him, but look at what it got us: Billions poured into a Star Wars program that went nowhere.”

Not to minimize “a few billion dollars”. SDI spending averaged less than 2 billion dollars per year under Reagan. Not a bad investment to defeat the Soviet Union.

“..it was on its way out in any event. Anyone that knows about Soviet political history knows that the internal events inside Russia were far more important then the external arms race was in ending the Soviet Union.”

What internal events? Anyway “political historians” are disinclined to give Reagan credit for anything. Not an objective lot, in my view.

Beirut: Reagan and “his hawkish advisors” didn’t decide to intervene in Lebanon’s civil war on the side of the Christian president. The Marines were there in support of an international Peacekeeping force. We didn’t withdraw because “Terrorists began killing them by the dozens”. We pulled out because Islamic Jihad killed 241 of them with a truck bomb. Many people forget that 58 French soldiers were killed in a simultaneous attack.

Did Reagan’s decision to assist in the peacekeeping efforts mark him as a “bad President”? I don’t think so. They certainly should have been better protected. Many of the same people who deride GWB for “unilateralism” in Iraq, hypocritically condemn Reagan for participating with the Euros in the Lebanese peacekeeping operation.

By the way, quoting Tip O’Neill’s opinions about Reagan is not particularly persuasive. I lived in Boston during the 80’s and remember O’Neill as a bitter, nasty politician who never passed up an opportunity to dump on Reagan. Mainly, I suspect, because Reagan kicked his ass in so many legislative fights.

Iran-Contra: I would like to correct some misconceptions.

“North and Poindexter surreptitiously diverted money from the Iranian arms sales to help fund the contras--a crime for which they would later both be convicted.”

Actually, North and Poindexter were convicted of lying to and misleading Congress. No one was ever convicted of violating the “Boland Amendment”, which was an amendment to the War Powers Act. The Boland Amendment was later repealed and it is likely that it would have been overturned as an unconstitutional usurpation of the Executive power to conduct foreign policy.

Both North and Poindexter’s convictions were ultimately vacated.

“Keep in mind that we were also selling arms to Iraq, who was fighting a war with Iran. So basically, we were giving money and weapons to both sides in the bloodiest conflict in the region’s history.”

Actually, the US sold almost no weapons to Iraq between 1973 and 2002. The Stockholm Institute for Peace and Research confirms that the US provided less weapons to Iraq than did Denmark. Less than 1% of the total. In fact, most of the US "weapons” listed by the Institute were civilian helicopters. Almost all of Iraq's "war weapons" were supplied by the Soviet Union, France and China.

The Economy: “ Reagan also did nothing to end inflation, the principle problem under Carter,”

Can’t agree with you there, Cram. In fact, Under Carter, inflation, unemployment and interest rates were all big problems. It was during the Carter administration that the term “stagflation”, the combination of a stagnating economy and high inflation, was coined.

I don’t know how you can say Reagan did nothing about inflation. When Carter left office, inflation was 13.5%. When Reagan left office, it was 4.8%. Unemployment was over 7% when Carter left office. It was just over 5% when Reagan left office. As for interest rates, the Prime rate was 20.5% when Carter left office. It was 10.5% when Reagan left office.

You can carp all you want about Reagan’s economic policy. Can you really convince anyone that the US economy would have been better off with 8 more years of Democratic stagflation and high interest rates?

Cram - 11/21/2003

John, a couple of points:
1) Reagan’s foreign policy was a failure. His spending the Soviets into oblivion is an important success that I do not deny him, but look at what it got us: Billions poured into a Star Wars program that went nowhere.

Furthermore, many historians and Soviet specialists argue that while Reagan may have quikened the collapse, it was on its way out in any event. Anyone that knows about Soviet political history knows that the internal events inside Russia were far more important then the external arms race was in ending the Soviet Union.

2) As for other foreign policy adventures (yes, there were others), let us review them, shall we?

a. Beruit:
“The deaths lie on him and the defeat in Lebanon lies on him and him alone.... The trouble with this fellow is he tries to be tough rather than smart."
--House Speaker Tip O'Neill on President Reagan, April 1984

In the spring of 1983, President Reagan and his team of hawkish advisors decided to intervene in Lebanon's civil war on behalf of Christian President Amin Gemayel. On March 24, the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit was dispatched to Lebanon where Moslem and Christian factions were fighting. After terrorists began murdering our troops by the dozen, Reagan had little choice under public pressure but to pull out. In other words, the operation was a failure.

b. Iran-Contra:
The CIA was training mercenaries despite numerous reports of atrocities committed by the contras against Nicaraguan civilians.
A CIA manual written for the contras instructed on such things as how to blackmail unwilling Nicaraguans into supporting the contra cause, how to create martyrs by arranging the deaths of fellow contras, and how to "neutralize" Nicaraguan government officials.
In October 1984, Congress voted to cut off funding for CIA-contra operations.
With the congressional cutoff, Casey decided to "hand off" contra operations to the National Security Council (NSC). National Security Advisor John Poindexter and NSC member Lt. Col. Oliver North were placed in charge. North and Poindexter were soon employing every clandestine scheme they could think of to fund the contras.

During this period and unknown to the public, the Reagan administration was selling arms to Iran in exchange for American hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian terrorists. North and Poindexter surreptitiously diverted money from the Iranian arms sales to help fund the contras--a crime for which they would later both be convicted. Keep in mind that we were also selling arms to Iraq, who was fighting a war with Iran. So basically, we were giving money and weapons to both sides in the bloodiest conflict in the region’s history.

Some quotes:
"The charge has been made that the United States has shipped weapons to Iran as ransom payment for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, that the United States undercut its allies and secretly violated American policy against trafficking with terrorists.... Those charges are utterly false.... We did not--repeat, did not--trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we."
--President Reagan, television address, November 13, 1986

"... [I] was not fully informed on the nature of one of the activities."
--President Reagan, referring to the fact that money from weapons sales to Iran was diverted to the contras, November 25, 1986

"If he knew about it, then he has willfully broken the law; if he didn't know about it, then he is failing to do his job. After all, we expect the President to know about the foreign policy activities being run directly out of the White House."
--Senator John Glenn, November 25, 1986

"The simple truth is, 'I don't remember--period.'"
--President Reagan, responding to a question about when he authorized arms shipments to Iran, February 2, 1987

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."
--Reagan in a television address is forced to acknowledge "the facts and the evidence" uncovered the Tower Commission, March 4, 1987

In other words, it was a crime, and a failure.

3) The economy:
During the Reagan Presidency, more people got rich then ever before… a good thing. However, more people also got poor, and the gap between the two was the largest it had been in decades. Furthermore, the national debt nearly doubled between 1980 and 1988, the largest increase in American history, to say nothing of the S&L crises. Reagan also did nothing to end inflation, the principle problem under Carter, and average annual GDP growth during the Reagan 80s was lower than during the Clinton 90s or the JFK-LBJ 60s!!

"He knows less about the budget than any president in my lifetime. He can't even carry on a conversation about the budget. It's an absolute and utter disgrace."
--House Speaker Tip O'Neill, after a meeting with Reagan, November 23, 1981

“The epitaph of the Reagan presidency will be: 'When Ronald Reagan became President, the United States was the largest creditor nation. When he left the presidency, we were the world's largest debtor nation.'"
--Lester Thurow, MIT professor of economics

"[A] lapse into fiscal indiscipline on a scale never before experienced in peacetime."
--David Stockman (Reagan's budget director) describing the 1980's, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed

4) You are right about one thing: “Deficit spending has historically been the desire of Keynesian Democrats.” The difference is that while the Democrats have used that policy to enhance job growth and improve the economy, Republicans have chosen instead to reward the rich and put an even grater burden on the poor. Trickle down economics has never worked. Trickle UP economics however, has a historic record of success under FDR, JFK, and Clinton.

In sum, Reagan was a poor president.

John Brennan - 11/20/2003


Giving him credit for ending the Cold War but calling his foreign policy a failure--THAT WAS HIS FOREIGN POLICY. Is anyone in there?

As to his economic policy: what country have you been living in?

I will take the Reaganomics of the 80's and 90's (despite Bill Clinton's attempts to raise marginal tax rates to fund his free medicine initiatives) over the Carternomics and Nixonomics of the 1970's.

Deficit spending has historically been the desire of Keynesian Democrats--until Clinton was forced to stop by Congressional Republicans. The "gap" between rich and poor is a relatively meaningless statistical artifact. What Reagan wanted was people to have more of the money they earned, less money going to government, and a greater incentive to work. The rich and the middle class responded and created the boom of the 80's and 90's. Many of the poor you shed tears for just don't realize that, at some point, you have to earn a living.

Places where there are small "gaps" between rich and poor:

North Korea
Viet Nam

Paradises, one and all.

John Brennan

Cram - 11/16/2003

I have no problem with giving Reagan credit for ending the Cold War (or at least, ending it so soon). I am convinced that if people knew the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Ronald Reagan, as they will one day, probably after he dies, history will come to see him, not as the great conservative sage, but as nothing more then the average politician, whose foreign policy towards much of the world was a total failure, and whose economic polciies caused a doubling of the deficit and a widening of the gap between rich and poor.

President Reagan was a poor President, whose appeal is based more on what he said than on what he did. The decision to cancel the CBS movie because of a few lines is beyond shameful. They either should not have made the film at all or made it and aired it. The true Reagan will come out, it is only a matter of time.