This Friday marks the 99th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. You’re going to be hearing a lot about the Gipper this week, and you’re going to be hearing a lot about him for the next 12 months. Already, a Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission — signed into law by President Obama last June, at a ceremony attended by Nancy Reagan — is busy planning a slew of Feb. 6, 2011, events that may take the nation one step closer toward Reagan’s political canonization. Meanwhile, day in and day out, the legacy of the 40th president still looms large over the national conversation, some 21 years after he left the Oval Office and nearly six years after his death — thanks in part to a deliberate campaign of distortion by modern conservatives, a Reagan myth has been used to justify disastrous spending policies at home and disastrous militarism abroad .
This week also marks the new paperback release of my book, now slightly retitled: "Tear Down This Myth: The Right Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy." When I was working on the book in 2008 in preparation for the original hardcover version, I did worry somewhat whether the likely election of a center-left Democratic president would render as moot the power of the Reagan myth. As it turned out, the inauguration of Barack Obama and the arrival of a large Democratic majority in Congress instead showed the limits of government in the face of this powerful philosophy that is loosely based on Reagan’s 1980s presidency but distorts or exaggerates the reality of much of what happened in those years.
The Reagan banner as carried by today’s conservatives involves deep and unrelenting mistrust of the government to solve any problems, even as crises from joblessness and unsound fiscal policies and a lack of a serious approach to energy and global warming fester from a lack of… problem solving. Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, captured the White House in the election after Watergate by promising "a government as good as the people," but when Carter stumbled for a host of reasons, Reagan was elected with a much different message. In his 1981 inauguration, he said: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems — government is the problem."
Little remembered is that in the same speech, Reagan also said: "Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back." But is the first message — that there is no government solution to any problem, no matter how complex — that has been hammered home by the powerful right-wing infrastructure, most notably talk radio and now the highly rated Fox News Channel on TV, that has endured and grown since Reagan’s tenure in office.