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The Reagan Myth

The Gipper's record is being distorted to make President Bush look bad.

12:00 AM, Jul 18, 2006 • By FRED BARNES
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I WAS RECENTLY ASKED about President Bush's chances of a political resurgence. Might Mr. Bush be able to recover as strongly as President Reagan did from a slump in his second term in the 1980s? My response was, Reagan recovery? What Reagan recovery?

Though he continued his ultimately successful fight to win the Cold War, Reagan achieved nothing new--practically nothing--after the Iran-contra scandal broke in 1986. His presidency was crippled. The Republicans had lost the Senate. His nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987 was defeated, partly because of feeble White House support. His veto of a transportation bill was overridden.

The question was innocent enough, but it reflected a broader pattern of misrepresentation of Ronald Reagan's record in the White House that has become not only widespread but widely accepted. Reagan was, I believe, one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century, but many of the things that both liberals and conservatives now credit to his presidency simply never were. And there's a political purpose behind this Reagan revisionism. He is cited mostly to criticize Bush and congressional Republicans for falling short of some mythical Reagan standard.

Liberals pretend the Reagan years--in contrast to the Bush years--were a golden idyll of collaboration between congressional Democrats and a not-so-conservative president. When Reagan died in 2004, John Kerry recalled having admired his political skills and liked him personally. "I had quite a few meetings with him," Mr. Kerry told reporters. "I met with Reagan a lot more than I've met with this president."

Of course, that wasn't Kerry's take on Reagan during his presidency: In 1988, he condemned the "moral darkness of the Reagan-Bush administration." A chief complaint of liberals and the media in those days was that Reagan was a "detached" president, not one easily accessible to Democratic members of Congress or anyone outside his inner circle of aides. But Reagan had to talk to Democrats on occasion since they controlled at least half of Congress. Bush rarely consults them for the simple reason that Republicans run all of Capitol Hill; so he talks frequently with Republican congressional leaders.

Liberals today talk about Reagan as if the hallmark of his administration was a lack of partisanship--again in contrast with Bush. Kerry noted in 2004 that Reagan "taught us that there is a big difference between strong beliefs and bitter partisanship." Bush, naturally, is the bitter partisan. Of course that's what liberals then thought of Reagan--and they were partially right: While never bitter, Reagan was in fact a partisan Republican.

On foreign policy, some liberals peddle the notion that Reagan wasn't the hardliner he might have seemed. Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, has argued that Reagan, having won the Cold War, was ready to rely on international organizations to police the world. Bush, on the other hand, is impugned as the enemy of the U.N. and multilateralism.

Reagan a moderate in foreign affairs? It strains credulity to imagine the president--who supported wars of national liberation in Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan, who bombed Libya to punish Gadhafi, who defiantly installed Pershing missiles in Europe, who invaded Grenada--as anything but a hardliner. He was a hawk for whom defeating the Soviet Union was the essential priority.

It's on foreign policy that liberals and conservatives find common cause. Patrick Buchanan, rehearsing the pieties of the political left, argues that Bush has turned the world against America. The "endless bellicosity" of Bush and his neoconservative advisers, he recently argued, "has produced nothing but ill will against us. This was surely not the way of the tough but gracious and genial Ronald Reagan."

Of all people, Buchanan ought to know better, having served as Reagan's communications director from 1984 to 1986. Reagan generated massive antiwar and anti-American demonstrations around the world, far larger and more numerous protests than those Bush has occasioned. He famously denounced the Soviet "evil empire" headed for "the ash-heap of history." He was treated by the press as a cowboy warmonger, just as Bush has been. Ill will? Reagan produced plenty--all in a noble cause.