When Reagan was (much) less popular than Carter

Will Bunch, author of "Tear Down This Myth," explains how the Gipper was transformed into a conservative demigod

Published February 6, 2011 4:01PM (EST)

Former president Ronald Reagan
Former president Ronald Reagan

By 1992, three years after he left the White House, Ronald Reagan was anything but a beloved former president. As a painful recession gripped the country, the public came to see the Reagan years -- which featured a massive defense buildup, soaring deficits and even a stock market crash in 1987 -- as the source of their economic woes. Running for president that year, Bill Clinton promised to enact a clean break from the "failed policies of Reagan and Bush." As Reagan prepared to speak at the Republican National Convention in August, a Gallup poll found that just 46 percent of Americans had a favorable view of him. By contrast, Jimmy Carter, the man Reagan had defeated in a 44-state rout in 1980, was viewed favorably by 63 percent of the American public. The Reagan presidency stood in something approaching disrepute.

Today, though, you'd never know any of this happened. In the two decades since it bottomed out, Reagan's image has been resurrected, thanks largely to a relentless campaign from conservative activists. Will Bunch, who writes for the Philadelphia Daily News and is a senior fellow at Media Matters, chronicled Reagan's image makeover -- and the reality of his record as president -- in his 2008 book "Tear Down This Myth." We spoke with him recently about how the myth of Reagan has taken hold, and whether there's any truth to it.

I'm really struck by the poll that showed Carter much more popular than Reagan. It's not something that people would think is possible if you asked them now. Can you talk about how we reached that point, back in the early '90s?

By 1992, Reagan and Carter were kind of being compared as ex-presidents, and on a lot of levels, Jimmy Carter has had this very successful ex-presidency with the work he's done for Habitat for Humanity and from the other peace-oriented types of missions he's been on around the world. Reagan received an enormous amount of criticism a couple of years after he left office, particularly for an episode that's probably not going to get mentioned a lot this week, which is accepting, I believe it was $2 million, to give a speech in Japan. At the time, it was unusual and kind of jarring for Reagan to accept that much money to give a speech, plus the fact that a bunch of millionaires in California had all chipped in to buy Reagan a house, which a lot of people thought was kind of suspicious and didn't look too different from bribery.

Also, Nancy Reagan actually published her memoirs (1989's "My Turn"), and they were very poorly received as being kind of nasty and vindictive. And so there were a lot of negative feelings about Reagan. But the real reason Reagan had fairly high unpopularity in the early 1990s was that people were not happy with the aftermath of his policies as president. The American economy was doing very poorly in the early 1990s, there was a recession during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Bush 41's presidency basically collapsed because he was forced to increase taxes to deal with the continuing deficits that were a legacy of Reagan. There was high anxiety among the American people starting in Reagan's second term about the loss of jobs in manufacturing, the growing clout of Asia -- so all of these things really caused Reagan to be viewed pretty negatively at the time. Bill Clinton campaigned very aggressively against Reaganomics. When Clinton was able to get some of his economic policies through Congress in the first two years of his presidency, Time ran a cover with a picture of Reagan upside down, and it was about the death of Reaganomics. That was the tone in the early '90s, before this conservative campaign to build what I call the Reagan myth got started.

Going back a step to his time in office, the popular version of Reagan's presidency is that he was elected kind of overwhelmingly, and then in 1984 reelected in a 49-state landslide, and then he just rides off into the sunset at the end of his term. But that second term was -- there were some serious problems in there, weren't there?

Oh, absolutely. A lot of people -- and I mean people in Congress who were in a position to do something about it -- felt that Reagan possibly committed impeachable offenses in the Iran-Contra scandal. There were several reasons he wasn't impeached. One, I think, was his age and some concern about his mental state, and the fact that he was in his second term. You have to remember that in the late 1980s, it really didn't feel like it was that long after Watergate -- and I think there's a tendency in politics to not want to relive something that's so traumatic. I mean, obviously, Congress had shed its qualms about impeachment by the late 1990s, but I think with Reagan there was a reluctance to do that.

Reagan's poll numbers really suffered a lot in the last two years of his presidency, partly because of Iran-Contra, but the other thing was the huge crash of the stock market in October 1987, which in the short run caused people to really start to reexamine Reagan's economic policies and whether the economic boom of the mid-1980s had maybe been a house of cards. I believe there was a poll that showed maybe a third of the American people wanted to see Reagan resign before his term was over, and certainly his approval ratings fell back under 50 percent.

The thing about Reagan and his approval ratings is they really went way up and way down. I mean, he was elected by a pretty big margin in 1980, probably because of Jimmy Carter's unpopularity. Then, when he came into office, he cut taxes and always gets so much credit for improving the economy -- except the economy got much worse over the next year, to where unemployment hit a high point, I think 10.8 percent. And Reagan's approval ratings dropped much lower than Obama's ever has, down to 35 percent. And then in '84 -- talk about good timing -- he really got the most benefits of the inevitable capitalist cycle of the reversal of the economy. It was really roaring back in '84, and the Democrats didn't really nominate the strongest opponent in [Walter] Mondale, and Reagan did win a big landslide. But then his popularity really plunged again because of Iran-Contra and nagging worries about aspects of the economy.

When he left office, his approval ratings were pretty high, and I think that after all the failed presidencies that came before him -- Nixon, Carter and Ford -- there was a sense of relief that he'd gotten through two terms and nothing disastrous had happened. There was goodwill toward Reagan because of his personality and his age. So he left office with a pretty high approval rating. And when he left office and people started to ponder the effects of his policies, his poll numbers dropped again only to be resurrected in the late 1990s.

But here we are just 15 or 20 years later and that whole story you just outlined is forgotten by so many people. What was the turning point from, say, that summer of '92, when Carter was actually more popular than Reagan, to where we are today?

There was always an effort on the right, starting from 1989 on, to try to give Reagan credit for winning the Cold War. The funny thing was, at first the public didn't really buy into that because the public was following the day in and day out of the news very carefully and felt what I think most scholars feel, which is that the credit for the Soviet Union collapsing largely belongs to Mikhail Gorbachev -- that it was Gorbachev pressing for these reforms and Reagan was an external force that wasn't quite as important. I quote in "Tear Down This Myth" a USA Today poll that was taken after the Berlin Wall collapsed (in October 1989) and a majority of Americans credited Gorbachev and only 14 percent credited Reagan.

How the myth gets started is that memories get softer and you have one group that gets very aggressive in pushing this notion that it was all Reagan's doing, that it was because of his defense buildup. The other thing is, during the 1990s, it was a great time economically -- probably better than it should have been because of the dot-com boom. At least among one class there was a lot of affluence in America -- and there were improvements that reached down to lower income. Black unemployment, for example, dropped during Clinton's presidency. It created this feeling that America had been on a roll and people forgot the recession of the early 1990s and how bad things had been and their anger with Reagan. They were more willing to say, "Well, this all started with Reagan," forgetting all those bad things that happened in the '80s and '90s.

It's no accident that the push to glorify Ronald Reagan started in 1997, because it was the year that Bill Clinton started his second term. He had just defeated Bob Dole overwhelmingly and things looked bleak for the broader conservative movement. They didn't seem to have anybody on the horizon to be a leader of the party, so there was this very conscious and calculated effort to look back. Something else that you can't overlook is that in 1997 Reagan was still alive and he announced with a lot of class and dignity in 1994 that he had Alzheimer's, so the public hadn't actually seen Reagan for three years. And the public impression of Nancy Reagan softened quite a bit, for good reasons -- she was out there pushing for stem cell research and other things. It would have been very difficult to criticize Reagan because of his health, a situation that engendered personal goodwill.

And that was something else conservatives could use as they launched this campaign to build up the Reagan legacy. They call it the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, started in 1997 by Grover Norquist. It was this aggressive push to rename as many things as possible across the country for Reagan. It started with the airport in Washington, which they successfully renamed Reagan Airport. And it's funny to see news from that time, because a lot of Democrats were biting their tongues because they had no good memories of Reagan's presidency, but because of his health nobody was going to vote against renaming the airport for Reagan. Not all of the ideas have been enacted. We still don't have Reagan's picture on a $50 bill, or alternating on the dime with FDR, as some people proposed. But there are an increasing number of Ronald Reagan statues across the country, and you can almost drive across the Sun Belt continuously on some sort of Ronald Reagan boulevard or freeway or highway. Not surprisingly, the push to rename things for Reagan has been more successful where conservatism is the most popular. 

It seems that a lot of people aren't even aware of what Reagan actually did as president, and you can point out areas where he clearly didn't do things that you would call conservative -- immigration comes to mind, with the amnesty in 1986. Do the Reagan deifiers even know what they're worshiping?

Especially now that Reagan's passed away, I think they're able to purport this idyllic, mythological version of Reagan who happens coincidentally to support all the pillars of the modern conservative movement. Political movements need a hero and Ronald Reagan -- the word "roles" is often associated with him because of his acting career, and his final role has been hero. But to do that, this movement had to do a rewrite, and things like the amnesty for undocumented immigrants had to go to the cutting room floor. He increased taxes on a number of occasions, either to undo the damage of his first tax cut, or because -- unlike modern conservatives -- he would actually engage in negotiations and try to compromise with Democrats on certain issues. All these things get lost because they don't fit the storyline that they're trying to push out there.

What goes through your head when you hear conservatives talk about Ronald Reagan now?

Well, I think they're misusing Reagan to push policies that in 2011 are destructive and could continue to be destructive to America. The whole tax thing is kind of insane -- that you can never raise taxes, which is not anything like what Reagan actually did. Even when he was governor of California, he actually signed the biggest tax increase that the governor of any state had ever signed at that time. So Reagan never subscribed to the idea that you can never raise taxes. The other thing that really rang true in the Bush years is using the great sound bites Reagan produced -- like "tear down this wall" or "evil empire" -- to justify things like the war in Iraq.

I don't know if you saw "The Social Network," but there's a line in it about how every good creation myth needs a devil. Does this help explain why, just as Reagan's popularity has gone up in the last two decades, Jimmy Carter's has taken a hit? Is he a casualty of the creation of the Reagan myth?

Yeah. The issue that was really the centerpiece of Carter's presidency was energy -- trying to promote useful alternative energy. And I don't see how you can look at what's happened over the last 25 years and not say that Carter was right: that we should have been researching alternative energy the whole time, and as a result we've fallen behind other countries; that we're addicted to oil and unable to shake that. But if you listen to talk radio, Jimmy Carter is reduced to wearing the sweater and turning the thermostat down at the White House. They've done such a good job creating Carter as kind of an anti-Reagan -- that part of Reagan's greatness was that he saved America from the malaise, which, by the way, is a word that Carter never actually uttered. This has become the modern equivalent of waving the bloody shirt was for the post-Civil War Republicans: waving the Jimmy Carter cardigan sweater.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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