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They're trying to deify Ronald Reagan: Inside the right-wing plot to turn the Gipper into a modern-day God

Grover Norquist wants an ode to Reagan in all 3,000 U.S. counties. Then just wait until he targets our currency


Brady Carlson
February 6, 2016 9:59PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Dead Presidents"

Inertia may be enough to keep a statue in the ground, but it’s not going to make anybody care about the president on that statue. Doing that takes effort—like a movement across the country. Or, alternatively, a lot of little movements in different parts of the country.

This has been the idea behind the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project: rather than let the historic chips fall where they may and leave their man to inertia and thumb vandals, the project wants to keep Ronald Reagan and his ideals in front of the public by naming things for him. Lots of things. How many things? “We want one thing in each county,” says the project’s architect, Grover Norquist.

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America has more than three thousand counties, so he’s talking about a lot of Reagan.

Norquist is as well suited as anybody for a grand-scale Reagan project: he’s the man behind the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, in which lawmakers, almost always Republican ones, promise to block any increase to any tax at any time. That pledge has certainly gone big; signing has been a virtual requirement for Republican candidates, who support the principle behind signing but also know that Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, can pit its considerable influence and resources against them if they don’t. Democrats by and large abhor the pledge and complain that Norquist has an “iron grip” on modern conservatives. One critic even called him the “dark wizard” of the right.

Call him what you want—Norquist has even called himself a “Darth Vader” for the cause at times—but it would be well off the mark to assume he’s just a heavy for tax cuts. The Legacy Project is pretty shrewd stuff, using a mostly nonpolitical appeal to advance political principles. “If you want to contend for the future,” Norquist said as the project got off the ground, “you have to contend for the public understanding of the past.” A big part of that understanding comes from naming things for public figures, and Reagan’s naming legacy was, at that point, pretty small. Meanwhile, he said, “everything that wasn’t nailed down was named for John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King or Franklin D. Roosevelt. Conservatives have not done as well in honoring their heroes.”

When Norquist started the Legacy Project in 1997, Ronald Reagan was still alive, albeit out of public view because of Alzheimer’s disease. And he’d been out of office for less than a decade. Memorials tend to take time, and, by definition, they come after a person’s death. Kennedy, King, and FDR had all been dead for decades, and each had died a very public, tragic death; a lot of the memorials that came after those deaths weren’t necessarily because of the subject’s political persuasions.

Then again, Roosevelt and Kennedy each ended up on a coin within the year after they died, so it is possible to put a memorial together quickly. And if memorials really do shape public perception, then Reagan, with maybe two dozen to his name, wasn’t set to shape much. Sure, the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington was the second-largest government building in the country when it was built, second only to the Pentagon, and the DC emergency room where the Secret Service took the president after the attempt on his life in 1981 had been renamed the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine. But such sites weren’t going to capture the public imagination like, say, the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial on the National Mall. And while the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home in Dixon, Illinois, is a fine place, the statue of Reagan in the side yard is as much about promoting the state’s industry as it is about the president’s legacy: “Illinois is famous for its production of agricultural products,” the statue’s information plaque says, “so it seems appropriate for him to be admiring the kernels of corn in his hand.”

Hence the effort to put a memorial in every county in the country. If Reagan’s legacy lagged in the public imagination, the thinking went, the conservative movement could lag, too. But if the public thought of Reagan, as Norquist did, as a top-tier historic figure, there would be a Reagan mantle for modern conservatives to claim as their own. As the former Legacy Project director Michael Kamburowski put it, “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?’” The project website offers a “strategy guide” for choosing things to name, and it says participants should always keep an eye out for low-hanging fruit: “Many major landmarks and projects are named for physical geography, such as ‘Muddy Creek Elementary,’” it advises. “These are easy dedications.”

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Norquist has often kept a big, high-profile naming opportunity on the table as well, because presidents don’t stay top tier solely as a namesake for previously unnamed muddy creeks. “Norquist had learned the lessons of [Reagan’s famous speeches at] Normandy and of the Brandenburg Gate,” says Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News; he wrote about the project in his book about Reagan, Tear Down This Myth. “Powerful symbols can mean a lot more than words.” The first symbol he chose in launching the initiative in 1997 was National Airport in Washington; he lined up support from then–House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Reagan’s son Michael, who called on Congress to “win just one more for the Gipper.”

Win they did, though not without opposition. Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, complained Norquist and company wanted “to turn the airport into a political billboard to greet visitors to Washington.” The DC transit authority refused at first to spend money on maps with the new name. And then there was longtime New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who grumbled, “Washington National Airport is already named after a president—the first one.” Even some staunch Reaganites joined in the criticism; commentator George Will wrote there was “something un-Reaganesque about trying to plaster his name all over the country the way Lenin was plastered over Eastern Europe, Mao over China and Saddam Hussein all over Iraq.” Nevertheless, the bill passed the House and Senate handily in early 1998, and National Airport became known as Reagan National Airport.

However, opposition has stopped some of the Legacy Project’s bigger ideas. Grover Norquist called for Reagan to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. “I think it will pass very easily when Reagan passes away,” he said in 2001. “I’ve told the Bush [administration] to expect it.” But the effort stalled, even after Reagan’s death in 2004. Plan B, to put Reagan on the dime, had less support; even Nancy Reagan declared herself opposed to the idea. And Norquist’s wish for a Reagan Monument on the National Mall ground to a halt, ironically because of a bill President Reagan signed in 1986 barring any Mall memorials for people who hadn’t been dead for at least twenty-five years.

Sometimes the project has had to play defense. In 2013 the University of Chicago tore down an apartment complex in which Reagan had lived as a preschooler, despite calls from a group of community activists to turn it into “a museum and center.” The preservationists proposed a pretty colorful alternative: “Break the walls, floors, ceiling and fixtures of the Reagan family apartment into small fragments and sell them on the Internet for between $100 and $1,000 a chip, depending on the size,” suggested a board member of the Hyde Park Historical Society in a letter to the university’s newspaper. “This should raise many thousands of dollars for the university, rather like selling fragments of the True Cross.” It didn’t happen, but not for lack of enthusiasm among the pro-Reagan contingent.

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And in the southern California town of Temecula, about an hour north of San Diego, a Reagan statue almost went up in flames. As president, the Gipper liked to tell the story of the town’s park—built entirely without public funding or assistance—as an example of what citizens could do without relying on government. Temecula, in response, named the place the Ronald Reagan Sports Park, complete with a Reagan statue. In 2013 someone set the thing on fire, charring the statue and destroying tiles displaying a quote in which Reagan exhorted Temecula to “never lose that spirit” of private-sector freedom and initiative.

More recently the Legacy Project has been on the hunt for a mountain peak on which to hang the Reagan name. In 2003 New Hampshire approved a bill to change the name of Mount Clay, in the White Mountains, to Mount Reagan, but the federal government said no, because of a policy about not naming things after people who hadn’t been dead five years; when they tried again years later, the feds said no again because of local resistance to the change. A Legacy Project supporter in Nevada, Chuck Muth, had better luck in his state: he found an unnamed mountain in a mountain range east of Las Vegas, cultivated local support, and even found local connections. (“Reagan was a marquee performer on the Las Vegas Strip for two weeks in 1954,” Muth told the Atlantic in 2013. “He owed back taxes to the IRS and needed the money. He also filmed a World War II propaganda film with Burgess Meredith at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.”) But just as the Board on Geographic Names looked set to act on the proposal, a Democratic member of Congress filed a bill to name that mountain after a Nevada lawmaker, blocking the board from taking action just as Ohioans had done so many times to those who wanted to pull William McKinley’s name from Denali in Alaska.

Muth has decided to start again with a different mountain in the same range. “It’s not the highest peak,” he said, “but it’s certainly close enough.” Maybe someday he’ll get Ronald Reagan’s name on a mountain. His effort, like many of the Legacy Project’s initiatives, has ebbed and flowed. There are hundreds of Reagan memorials on the map now, from Ronald W. Reagan Middle School in Grand Prairie, Texas, to Ronald Reagan Boulevard in Warwick, New York, to the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site in Cooperstown, North Dakota. But there are still more than two thousand Reagan-less counties, too. Sometimes the Legacy Project aims for a high-profile naming opportunity like the $10 bill; other times it lies low and just reminds supporters to celebrate Reagan’s birthday each February.

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Even in quiet periods, though, Grover Norquist keeps an eye out for a good opportunity. Shortly after the US Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins’ federal registrations for being “disparaging to Native Americans,” sports fans started thinking up new names for the team—including the Washington Reagans. “Great idea,” Norquist told Buzzfeed. “The former Redskins can be the Ronald Reagans on winning years and the Nancy Reagans on losing years. Unless that gets us in more trouble elsewhere.”

Whether or not Reagan gets a football team named for him, or a mountain, or a $10 bill, the ongoing effort to name things after him will at least ensure he lingers in the public imagination, even as other modern presidents fade. In 2000, when the Legacy Project was just a few years old, Gallup Poll respondents ranked Reagan as a better-than-average US president; today, he usually ranks near the top, with John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. There’s a partisan divide in these polls—more than half of Republican respondents choose Reagan, while Democrats give Kennedy a boost—but the poll numbers echo Norquist’s hope that Reagan could be a conservative hero in the public’s eyes as Kennedy had been for progressives. Ronald Reagan remains, as the Legacy Project had hoped, a big deal.

Almost too big a deal, in fact. In 2012, rumors were flying at the Republican National Convention that a “special guest” on the schedule would be a 3-D hologram version of the Gipper, much like the hologram Tupac Shakur that had “performed” onstage at Coachella earlier in the year. Yahoo! News found a man called Tom Reynolds, who said he’d been developing a hologram version of the Great Communicator, but ran into opposition from Republicans “who asked him to delay the project out of concern it would overshadow Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech.” “Even in a hologram form,” Reynolds said, “I think Reagan’s going to beat a lot of people in terms of communicating.”

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There’s no question there’s an overtly political element to the Reagan Legacy Project, but it’s hardly the first time someone’s tried to name something after a president for political reasons; in fact, the project’s playbook isn’t that different from the one liberals used in the 1930s to memorialize Thomas Jefferson. The Sage of Monticello’s brand of rural individualism fell out of favor after the Civil War, in which Lincoln mobilized a strong central government to keep the country together. But in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt and his allies played up Jefferson as a champion of the little guy, a president who stood up for the people against the powerful. Jefferson’s face first showed up on the nickel in 1938, and FDR dedicated the Jefferson Memorial the following year, saying, “He lived, as we live, in the midst of a struggle between rule by the self-chosen individual or the self-appointed few.” Like the Legacy Project’s image of Reagan, this version of Jefferson wasn’t always a perfect historic fit, but the politics worked extremely well.

Jefferson has also been used as a symbol by people with very different politics than New Deal Democrats. Several times people in rural northern California have proposed pulling the region out of the Golden State and creating a new, libertarian-themed State of Jefferson with equally rural southern Oregon. “The Jefferson statehood tale appeals to a fantasy Westerners embrace,” says journalist Peter Laufer, who’s written about the movement. “We’re rugged individualists who like to go it alone.” And who better to stand as a symbol of that spirit than the most prominent voice for agrarian-style small government?

Ronald Reagan himself made a point of honoring a president for political purposes. Shortly after becoming president, he moved a portrait of New Deal icon Harry Truman out of the Cabinet Room and replaced it with one more in line with the more conservative goals he had in mind: Calvin Coolidge. Silent Cal was, as his biographer Amity Shlaes described him, the Great Refrainer of the American presidency, the guy who would rather get rid of a single bad law than pass twenty good ones. He was known for being frugal with words—the famous Coolidge quote is the one in which a woman tells Cal she made a bet she could get more than two words out of him, and he answers, “You lose.” But he was even more frugal with the federal budget, cutting back everything he could, and then trying to cut more. The portrait change was Reagan’s way of saying which president he hoped to emulate.

Excerpted from "Dead Presidents" by Brady Carlson. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright 2016 by Brady Carlson. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Brady Carlson

Brady Carlson is a reporter and on-air host for New Hampshire Public Radio. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and children.

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