The news that President Obama decided to read a biography of Ronald Reagan during his Christmas holiday in Hawaii might be taken as a sign that Reagan’s triumph over liberals is complete. Can anyone imagine John F. Kennedy admitting he was reading a biography of Calvin Coolidge, or Jimmy Carter taking in lessons from Dwight Eisenhower? This represents the culmination of a remarkable turnabout in Reagan’s reputation, most notably among liberals, who might have been expected to do to Reagan what an earlier generation of partisan historians did to Coolidge. Instead, we have seen a raft of books from liberal grandees such as Richard Reeves and Sean Wilentz giving Reagan his due.
But while conservatives should pocket these unexpected concessions, they should also note that the admiration of Reagan in the media-academic complex is highly qualified and mostly limited to his role in the Cold War. (And even this story they get wrong.) About the domestic-policy Reagan, liberals are currently engaging in a clever two-step — either excoriating Reagan with recycled 1980s clichés (favors the rich, hates the poor and minorities, reckless deregulation, and so forth), or making him out to be a crypto-liberal who tacitly set out to shore up the welfare state while cloaking himself in anti-big-government rhetoric. Ever so slowly, liberals are attempting a subtle revisionism. This revisionism is alarming not simply as an offense against historical accuracy, but also because the Liberal Revised Standard Version of Reagan will be used against the Tea Party and congressional Republicans in the months and years to come. We can expect to hear (and have already heard once or twice) that even Reagan
didn’t attack entitlements the way Paul Ryan and today’s radical House Republicans propose to do.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Left has pulled off a historical Brinks job on a Republican whose achievements and popularity could not be destroyed with a direct attack. A hundred years ago, the leading Progressives appropriated Abraham Lincoln for their cause, even as they explicitly attacked Lincoln’s (and the Founders’) central political philosophy of natural rights. It culminated in the chutzpah of Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration in 1929 that “it is time for us Democrats to claim Lincoln as one of our own,” and in the early 1990s with New York’s ultra-liberal governor, Mario Cuomo, ostentatiously embracing Lincoln because “he’s reassuring to politicians like me.”
The liberal revision of Reagan has been unfolding for a while now, and at the center of it is the effort to separate him from his conservative beliefs. Joshua Green wrote in The Washington Monthly
in January 2003 that “many of [Reagan’s] actions as president wound up facilitating liberal objectives. What this clamor of adulation is seeking to deny is that beyond his conservative legacy, Ronald Reagan has bequeathed a liberal one.” He raised taxes! He talked to the Soviets and reached arms agreements! Green’s article was provocatively adorned with a cartoon rendering of Reagan as FDR, complete with upturned cigarette holder. The late John Patrick Diggins, an unorthodox liberal who was a close friend of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s, argued in his 2007 book Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History
that Reagan deserves to be considered one of the four greatest American presidents, alongside Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. His Upper West Side neighbors are still picking up their jaws off the floor. However, Diggins makes Reagan into a crypto-liberal: “Far from being a conservative, Reagan was the great liberating spirit of modern American history, a political romantic impatient with the status quo. . . . Reagan’s relation to liberalism may illuminate modern America more than his relation to conservatism.”