How Republicans created the myth of Ronald Reagan

With the Gipper's reputation flagging after Clinton, neoconservatives launched a stealthy campaign to remake him as a "great" president.

Published February 2, 2009 11:28AM (EST)

The myth of Ronald Reagan was already looming in the spring of 1997 — when a highly popular President Bill Clinton was launching his second-term, pre-Monica Lewinsky, and the Republican brand seemed at low ebb. But what neoconservative activist Grover Norquist and his allies proposed that spring was virtually unheard of — an active, mapped-out, audacious campaign to spread a distorted vision of Reagan's legacy across America.

In a sense, some of the credit for triggering this may belong to those supposedly liberal editors at the New York Times, and their decision at the end of 1996 to publish that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. survey of the presidents. The below-average rating by the historians for Reagan, coming right on the heels of Clintons’ easy reelection victory, was a wake-up call for these people who came to Washington in the 1980s as the shock troops of a revolution and now saw everything slipping away. The first Reagan salvos came from the Heritage Foundation, the same conservative think tank that also had feted the 10th anniversary of the Reagan tax cut in 1991. After its initial article slamming the Times, the foundation’s magazine, Policy Review, came back in July 1997 with a second piece for its 20th anniversary issue: “Reagan Betrayed: Are Conservatives Fumbling His Legacy?”

The coming contours of the Reagan myth were neatly laid out in a series of short essays from the leaders of the conservative movement: that the Gipper deserved all or at least most of the credit for winning the Cold War, that the economic boom that Americans were enjoying in 1997 was the result of the Reagan tax cut (and not the march toward balanced budgets, lower interest rates and targeted investment), and that the biggest problem with the GOP was, as the title suggested, not Reagan’s legacy but a new generation of weak-kneed leaders who were getting it all wrong. The tone was established by none other than Reagan’s own son, Michael, now himself a talk-radio host, who wrote: “Although my father is the one afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, I sometimes think the Republicans are suffering a much greater memory loss. They have forgotten Ronald Reagan's accomplishments — and that is why we have lost so many of them.”

Michael Reagan, like most of the others, mentioned Reagan’s frequent calls for less government — presumably his accomplishment there was simply in calling for it, since he never came close to achieving it. Gary Bauer, another former Reagan aide who later ran for president as an antiabortion “family values” candidate, took a similar tack on the speaking-out issue, noting that Reagan “spoke of the sanctity of human life with passion” — again regardless of his lack of concrete results on that front. One of the writers argued: “On the international scene, Reagan knew that only America could lead the forces of freedom” — it was former assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who’d pleaded guilty in a deal to withholding information about Iran-Contra from Congress and was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating even went the distance and compared Reagan to the 16th president with his argument that “Reagan's achievement can be compared to Lincoln's, because he faced immense challenges in an era characterized by deep and fundamental philosophical divisions among the people he set out to lead.” Of course, Keating’s analogy implied that stagflation and a left-wing government in Nicaragua were on an equivalent plane with slavery and a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans on our own soil — dramatizing the rhetorical extent to which conservatives were now willing to go in order to salvage their movement.

One of the more down-to-earth tributes was written by Norquist, who said: “Every conservative knows that we will win radical tax reform and reduction as soon as we elect a president who will sign the bill. The flow of history is with us. Our victories can be delayed, but not denied. This is the change wrought by Ronald Reagan.” Norquist all but revealed one of his missions in the coming two years — finding a presidential candidate who would assume the Reagan mantle in a way that neither Bush 41 nor Dole ever could — but not the other. His second big push was practically a guerrilla marketing campaign to make sure that the less-engaged Middle America would get the message that Reagan belonged in the pantheon of all-time greats right next to Lincoln, Washington and FDR. Norquist had learned the lessons of Normandy and of the Brandenburg Gate, which was that powerful symbols can mean a lot more than words (especially in a little-read policy journal), that a motorist under the big Sunbelt sky of Ronald Reagan Boulevard will absorb the message of the Gipper’s greatness without ever pondering if ketchup should be a vegetable in federally funded school lunches or if “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” in Central America were drug-dealing thugs, the kind of stubborn things that popped up in those newspaper articles ranking the presidents.

The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project was hatched in the spring of 1997 — and perhaps like any successful guerrilla operation, there was an element of surprise. There was no formal announcement, nothing to tip off any alarmists on the left. Rather than incorporate the Reagan project as a separate entity, which carried the potential of greater scrutiny of its operations and its finances, it was simply a unit of the group that Norquist had been overseeing for more than a decade, the Americans for Tax Reform. The Reagan Legacy Project would not even get its first mention in print until October 23, 1997 — by then its first bold proposal had two key backers in Georgia Rep. Bob Barr and that state’s Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell. They had endorsed legislation that would rename the Capitol region’s busy domestic airport, Washington National, as Reagan National. The renaming would not only mean that millions of air travelers would pass through the facility named for the 40th president, but a disproportionate number would be from the nation’s liberal elites, especially in Big Media, who used the airport’s popular shuttle service. Simply put, Reagan National Airport would be a weekly thumb in the eye of the Yankee elites who were still belittling the aging Gipper’s presidency.

The announcement didn’t even get coverage in the hometown Washington Post until exactly one month later, when Norquist’s behind-the-scenes lobbying push had already bagged the endorsement of the influential Republican Governors Association — including George Allen, the governor of the state where the airport is located (in Arlington, Va.) on federal land — as well as House Speaker Gingrich. With Reagan out of public view with Alzheimer’s for three years now, advocate Barr cast the measure as a feel-good proposal that surpassed partisanship. “People appreciate how Ronald Reagan gave voice to Americans' basic good feelings, including a lot of Democrats, ” he said. Democrats, in fact, did what you would expect them to do … they hemmed and hawed. The mayor of Washington, D.C., at the time — with thus the largest presence on the regional panel that ran Washington National — was Democrat Marion Barry, a bitter foe of Reagan’s politics, who could only fret that there were a “host of other” people who should be considered, too; in a later article, Geraldine Ferraro, who was Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, said that Reagan’s real legacy was the mountain of debt, but then she offered a verbal shrug: “The man was president of the United States; he served two terms.” It almost brought to mind Reagan’s cruel remark about Michael Dukakis a decade earlier, that “I’m not going to pick on an invalid.”

After a couple of years in the wilderness with the rest of the inside-the-Beltway right wing, Norquist had found a new cause that not only advanced the movement but that he could also have fun with. "The guy ended the Cold War; he turned the economy around," Norquist told the Baltimore Sun. “He deserves a monument like the Jefferson or the FDR — or the Colossus at Rhodes! National Airport is a good place to start.”

Norquist was the leader of a new breed, the College Republican-trained version of a bomb thrower. Molded by the 1970s and that political void between the hangover of campus radicalism and the Carter malaise, he was a true believer, with an iconoclastic outlook, who called the countercultural drug-overdosing rock star Janis Joplin a hero even as he forged political ties with the Christian Right. Like most political junkies, his ideas were a mix of heredity — his father, a Polaroid executive who raised Norquist in the Boston suburbs, taught his young son to hate taxes at the Daily Joy ice-cream parlor by taking the first two licks of his son’s cone and calling it the income and sales tax — and generational rebellion. But that rebellion was against the liberal norms at Harvard, which he attended in the mid-1970s, even while working on the left-leaning Harvard Crimson. When he escaped to Washington in 1978, it was still as an outsider; he would later tell the Washington Post that the sight of the more opulent federal buildings there made him “physically ill” because they were built with taxpayer dollars, that they were a kind of “neo-American fascism,” that “[t]hey took people's money to build those things, people who were just getting by, [they] stole their money and built those things out of marble...”

Ronald Reagan came three years later to rescue Grover Norquist, to take a young single Republican nerd and make him a player, albeit a small-time one at first. It was through Reagan’s team that Norquist came to launch the Americans for Tax Reform in 1986, to win support for that year’s overhaul (even though, as noted earlier, the bill raised taxes on corporations substantially — one of the early contradictions among many that would pile up over Norquist’s long career). During those days, the geeky 20-something took strength from Reagan’s support of so-called freedom fighters like Jonas Savimbi in Angola, a right-wing rebel backed by South Africa’s then-apartheid government — his office would be lined with pictures of Norquist’s gun-toting days in the jungle, interspersed with the Joplin memorabilia.

By the 1990s, Norquist was in a new political mode, survivor. He served as a close ally of Gingrich, helping to draft and promulgate the 1994 Contract with America, but the bitter chain of events that seemed to start the day his heroic Gipper headed into the California sunset — followed by Bush 41 and his betrayal on taxes and then the anti-Gingrich backlash — caused him to again focus on the presidency as the place where the action was. Of course, by now Norquist was not so much a rebel as a conglomerate, enmeshed in a tangled web of alliances, sometimes for money. By 1997, Norquist was a registered lobbyist for what was becoming the most powerful business monopoly of the computer era, the software giant Microsoft Corp., while his ATR umbrella group was being probed for its multimillion ad campaign on behalf of GOP candidates in the 1996 elections. In fact, the very spring that Norquist launched the Reagan Legacy Project, his fellow conservative Tucker Carlson wrote a scathing profile that accused the activist of cynically selling out — the article that ran in the left-leaning New Republic (after the conservative Weekly Standard rejected it) carried the headline “What I Sold at the Revolution” and said that, among other things, Norquist was now receiving $10,000 a month from the left-wing strongman who controlled the African nation of Seychelles, the polar opposite of the type of anti-communist rebels he once supported.

So maybe the Reagan project was a little escape for Norquist, a little getting back to his roots, with the kind of in-your-face surprising ploy that had been his youthful trademark. From the start, he handed the task of running the legacy project to a young aide named Michael Kamburowski, who had recently arrived from his native Australia with a kind of zeal for Reaganism that maybe only a newcomer could carry. A decade later, it would come out that Kamburowski — who also lobbied with Norquist on issues such as immigration reform — was here in the United States illegally (and even jailed for a time in 2001, which somehow didn’t prevent Kamburowski from landing a subsequent job as chief operating officer of the California Republican Party). But while he apparently was in the United States as an illegal alien, Kamburowski still seemed to “get” the Reagan Legacy Project from Day One, that it wasn’t just about honoring Reagan but enshrining Reagan’s conservative principles as the American ideal. "Someone 30 to 40 years from now who may never have heard of Reagan will be forced to ask himself, 'Who was this man to have so many things named after him?'” Kamburowski said to the left-oriented magazine Mother Jones in 1997, writing about Norquist’s legacy scheme. The initial media coverage of the idea tended to range from bemusement to amusement. People magazine — the ultimate vehicle for connecting with the Silent Majority of unengaged voters — covered an early effort of the legacy campaign that was a six-foot portrait of Reagan made from 14,000 jelly beans. The item was headlined: “Reagan’s Sweet Legacy.”

All the sweetness and yuks masked a somewhat startling fact — that by enshrining a national myth about Reagan so soon after his presidency, while he was still alive (albeit incapacitated), and for purposes that were essentially partisan in nature, Norquist, Kamburowski and their powerful and growing list of conservative allies were pulling off a maneuver that was unprecedented in American history. Other presidents and leaders had surely been mythologized — a walk from Norquist’s office near K Street to the National Mall would show that — but not while they were still living, or in a manner so blatantly calculated in the very spirit of a presidency built around effective public relations. This may have been American history, circa 1984 — but as if the textbook had been authored by Orwell himself. As young Kamburowski said flatly to the Hartford Courant in December 1997: “The left has been far better at rewriting history. Conservatives just haven't paid that much attention to this kind of thing.”

Excerpted from "Tear Down This Myth:  How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future" by Will Bunch. Copyright © 2009 by Will Bunch. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

By Will Bunch

Will Bunch is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of the political blog Attytood.

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