The towering bronze statue pictured above stands guard over the entrance of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley -- it's called "After the Ride" and it depicts Ronald Reagan -- Midwesterner-turned-movie-star-turned-governor-turned-president - in the mythical guise of something he was not (except in a couple of "B" movies), a swashbuckling cowboy. Stetson hat in hand.
It's quite a tribute -- but almost every week now there is one like it somewhere in America, often in places that Reagan never set foot, like Covington, La. -- where just this week an even larger bronze statue of the Gipper was unveiled , some 9-feet tall, standing watch over a trail head in a town where neither the public or its elected officials had asked for it. Instead, the world's largest Reagan statue was placed there and paid for by the foundation of late oilman Patrick Taylor. The Louisiana entrepreneur started Taylor Energy in 1979, the year before Reagan was elected and two years before Reagan dramatically reduced taxes on big oil and began slashing tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. Today, Taylor's widow is said to be the richest person in the entire state, worth $1.6 billion; it's surprising the statue wasn't cast from solid gold.
But why wouldn't there be Reagan tributes from coast-to-coast, from New Hampshire's Mt. Reagan to the brand-new Reagan Medical Center at UCLA, a branch of the school that Reagan himself once decried as a hotbed of socialism and orgies? Haven't you been paying attention to the 2008 presidential race?
It was Reagan who not only single-handedly won the Cold War and toppled the Berlin Wall but also caused the greatest economic turnaround in American history, and that's not all. It was Reagan who looked Iran in the eye and caused them to give up our hostages in a matter of minutes, who taught us that "deficits don't matter" and was steadfast about never increasing taxes, who never compromised, who reduced federal spending and ended big government -- as so many political candidates have told us. He was the most popular president in modern American history -- and if only he were still in the White House today, he would have dealt sternly with illegal immigrants and appointed hard-line conservatives to the Supreme Court -- but we know he would never negotiate with terrorists, "cut and run" from a difficult military situation, or talk to our enemies.
As Reagan himself said (attempting to quote John Adams) in 1988, "facts are stubborn things." OK, actually when he said it, it came out initially as "facts are stupid things." The irony is that nearly 20 years after Reagan left office, neither is true -- facts are largely irrelevant, especially as we create these false idols of our 40th president. There is a Ronald Reagan myth in this country, and it is already causing great harm to our politics, and will do even more damage if we don't tackle it head-on.
The image of Reagan was all but hijacked by an ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party in the late 1990s when its movement was at low ebb, lacking in new ideas and charismatic candidates. Amazingly, they've managed to whitewash both what was horrible about Reagan's record (the growing gap between rich and poor, the Constitutional abuses of Iran-contra, and ignoring of homelessness and AIDS) and a few things that were actually pretty good (his willingness to talk with the Soviets and other enemies, reluctance to use force that would cause civilian collateral damage, which he called "terrorism itself," and pragmatism on some other issues) to create a Reagan who never existed, who would continue to cut taxes no matter how large the debt and who believed not just in a strong military but in throwing its weight around.
Reagan's distorted legacy will loom over our next president, whether it's John McCain, who flip-flopped on taxes to appease key GOP power broker Grover Norquist, the head of the Reagan Legacy project, or Barack Obama, who has cited Reagan's political optimism as an influence and whose recent moves to the political right is raising new doubt about whether he can alter the course that was set nearly three decades ago.
Unless something is done to correct the myth.
I'd be ignoring the stubborn facts if I didn't acknowledge that there are a lot of books about Reagan -- but none have truly tackled what has happened in the years since he vanished from public life and his 2004 death, his distorted legacy and its warping impact on our political debate. That's why I'm more excited about the project that I am currently working on than anything I've done before: A full-length, hardcover book about the Reagan legacy that will be published in the early part of next year by Free Press, which is an imprint of Simon & Schuster. There's already a working title and a cover and a proposed release date, but for several reasons I'm going to continue to keep those under wraps for now. As the market for progressive volumes grows, I'm hoping to be able to take both this book and the underlying issue to a broad audience with the help of Free Press, my friends in the blogging community, and -- as they say on public TV -- people like you.
And yes, there's a practical reason I'm telling you this now. Although the project is surprisingly far along, I'm going to be taking my 2008 time off between the July 4 holiday and sometime in mid-August to finish the writing. That means that Attytood will be on something of a summer hiatus -- my tentative plan is to put up daily open threads so you guys can keep talking to each other, but probably nothing else (unless if there's more news related to the book). I'll be back full-time for both conventions and the excitement, hopefully, of the fall campaign, and the election of our 44th president.
Who won't be Ronald Reagan -- no matter what he tells you.