Real Reagan Clouded by Myth; Misperceptions Too Often Serve outside Agendas

Article excerpt


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?

There is mythology about Washington, Lincoln and the Roosevelts, just as there is about Reagan. Such is the burden of magnitude and great legacies.

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.

Reagan was wary of O'Neill, as he recorded in his diaries. Just saw a fundraising letter signed by .. O'Neill for Dem Cong. Committee. It was the most vicious pack of lies I've ever seen.

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. …