The Mixed Legacies of Ronald Reagan

By Heclo, Hugh | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2008 | Go to article overview

The Mixed Legacies of Ronald Reagan

Heclo, Hugh, Presidential Studies Quarterly

Although academia continues to debate Ronald Reagan's place in history, a Reagan legacy industry has been working, with some success, to enshrine the former president's memory in a host of public sites and symbols (Bjerre-Poulsen 2008). The man who fired the nation's air traffic controllers and thundered against the growth of the federal bureaucracy now has Washington's national airport and DC's largest federal office building named in his honor. Recently, conservative activists have borrowed from the evangelical Christian movement and urged each other to be guided by the question "What would Reagan do?" (Heritage Foundation 2008). And even Barack Obama invoked Ronald Reagan in the 2008 presidential campaign as a role model of transformative leadership.

From these and other indications, it would seem that Ronald Reagan is well on his way to becoming an iconographic figure in our politics.

Many academics and liberal groups understandably take a dim view of this development. But the fact of the matter is that ours would be a very dreary political society if citizens did not try to find ways to celebrate their departed heroes. Rather than pooh-poohing the idea of honoring important political figures, we would do better to recognize that there are significantly different ways of doing so.

One way of honoring is to memorialize a person. We do that by stamping his or her name on physical things--a street, building, piece of currency, and the like. Thus the Reagan Legacy Project, led by Grover Nordquist and his group, Americans for Tax Reform, aims to erect a Reagan monument in every state and to have something named after the former president in each of the nation's 3,054 counties.

Second, we can bestow honor by ritually praising the person who is to be remembered. This involves mounting celebrations, remembrances, or similar hortatory projects. Here, for example, one might think of the commemorations conducted by the Young America's Foundation at Reagan's Rancho del Cielo or the over 40 state governments that have now designated February 6 (the former president's birthday) as "Ronald Reagan Day."

Finally, there is the honor that comes from trying to appreciate a person. By "appreciate" I aim to use the term in its original sense--to evaluate or price out the worth of whatever is under consideration. In this sense, to appreciate does not mean simply to admire or be thankful. It means to be carefully attentive to understand, in a well-rounded way, the significance of someone or something. Applied to any major political figure, such an appreciative effort means striving to take the full measure of a person's presence on the public scene. That is far different from simply rendering a thumbs-up or thumbs-down approval rating.

It seems to me that this third category is the highest form of honor we can bestow on a person. That is because it puts the supreme value on the truth of things. We pay our greatest respect to a person by studiously and honestly weighing what it meant that he or she passed through this troubled world. It is true that Reagan has become an iconographic figure for many people. But this does not deny the value of striving for such an appreciation. Quite the contrary. Properly understood, an icon is not something to be worshipped but something to be seen into, a portal into deeper realities. Ideologically closed minds can have trouble seeing that an icon is not an idol.

Of course, even in the best of circumstances, honoring-as-truthful-appreciation is difficult work. A wise historian once said that "all history is contemporary history" (Collingwood 1994, 202). (1) In other words, you and I cannot avoid seeing the past in light of our present. Humanly speaking, that is the only light we have.

If that is the case in the best of circumstances, offering a fair account of Ronald Reagan's legacy in 2008 is especially difficult. Given that it is scarcely 20 years since he left office, we are only just now entering the middle distance where one can start gaining a reasonable historical perspective. …

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