The good news is that myths abound about Ronald Reagan, just as they do about other great Americans. If no one cared about Reagan or his legacy, no one would try to glom onto them or reinvent them. Then he would be consigned to the dustbin of history. After all, who makes up folklore about Franklin Pierce?
Marlene Dietrich, the sui generis and self-possessed actress, said, “I am not a myth.” Neither was Reagan or those other great presidents.
The bad news is that myths can blind one to the facts about a man. Worse, they can be perpetuated to achieve a purpose in the name of some hidden agenda. A pernicious myth is that Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O'Neill were great friends. They worked together a couple of times, and O'Neill was gracious at the time of the assassination attempt, but O'Neill also wrote in his autobiography that it was “sinful” that Reagan had been elected and that he was the “worst” president in O'Neill’s lifetime.
O'Neill also took at least one gratuitous shot at Nancy Reagan, calling her the “queen of Beverly Hills.” O'Neill’s one-time aide, Chris Matthews, recently wrote a piece claiming that Reagan and O'Neill were deeply fond of each other, but the numerous criticisms of Reagan in O'Neill’s own book demonstrates otherwise.
Just as a little information can be a dangerous thing, so too can disinformation. In the early part of this century, Reagan’s legacy was in danger of dissipating into the ether; he was in danger of being known simply as just “a nice man.” Fortunately there came “Reagan, in His Own Hand” and “Reagan: A Life in Letters,” thick tomes of Reagan’s writings, commentaries and speeches, edited by longtime aides Martin and Annelise Anderson. Later came “The Reagan Diaries,” edited by historian Douglas Brinkley. The sheer volume of these works refuted for all time the myth that he was some sort of “lightweight actor.”
This week, as Americans celebrate the centennial of the birth of the Gipper, many will pause to remember, reflect or relearn what it was about the man, his character and his vision for American greatness. They also will restudy what about Reagan made him a uniquely quintessential American. He was a president unlike any who had come before and yet also was always of the people. This is the essence of American exceptionalism: common men doing uncommon things and the sum of the parts of this country being greater than the whole.
He was not of the Catholic faith yet had gained from his father a parish perspective. To Reagan, America was a “community of shared values” that sprang from the family, faith and neighborhoods, and government should only benignly reflect that self-evident fact.
He was in some ways a small “l” libertarian, without being libertine. For Reagan, the issue was about personal rights, individual dignity and privacy. He opposed a peacetime military draft; he said libertarianism was the fundamental basis for conservatism; and at one point, he described himself as a “libertarian-conservative.” Yet Ayn Rand had little use for Reagan even as he described himself as an “admirer” of hers.
When it came to people, his was a generous spirit, nonjudgmental, more interested in ideas and philosophy than personalities or gossip.
The licentious excesses of American society appalled him: abortion; pornography; drug use; abuses of one’s own body, mind or world. He spoke equally of “maximum freedom” and “law and order.” He also believed that states and not the national government should have jurisdiction over issues of behavior.
Reagan did not reject the “man-centered universe,” as did one of his favorite philosophers, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but neither did he reject the “God-centered universe,” as did another of his favorite philosophers, Thomas Paine.
Indeed, Reagan spoke of “man with God” and in this found a synthesis between Paine and Solzhenitsyn in that if man was at the center of the universe, it must be as God’s creation because God wanted him there and, moreover, God was there with man.
Reagan was even more Tea Party than Jefferson, who opposed a mercantile class in his new country. Jefferson envisioned a privileged class of agrarians who would ship their unfinished goods off to Europe for manufacturing. Reagan embraced the entrepreneurial spirit, as he saw it empowering individuals.