Wait ... perhaps “new” is the wrong word. He’s been idealized and used to sell conservative propaganda for longer than Obama has even been on the national stage. But it wasn’t until recent years that Reagan gained true cult status — a leader who somehow became more important because of what he represents, not who he actually was.
Like Obama in 2008, Reagan now essentially is a blank slate on which people of a particular political persuasion project their own beliefs. Democrats did it with Obama to convince themselves that he was the perfect candidate for president. Obama spoke in such broad strokes that his supporters simply assumed all their individual views jibed with his — and he certainly wasn’t going to tell them the contrary. They invested their hopes and dreams in that empty vessel, and didn’t really gain a glimpse of reality until late in his first term.
Reagan idolatry works in reverse; as his presidency gets further and further away, it becomes easier and easier for revisionist conservatives to imagine that Reagan would support anything and everything on their platform. He’s a figure they all respect, so they use him as a puppet standard-bearer for their causes, evoking his name to remind people of a simpler time when — at least as the stories go — America was a mighty, righteous nation on the right (Republican) path.
But sometimes the tales they tell themselves to justify their own political fervor just aren’t true.
No, Reagan probably wouldn’t support Republicans’ hard-push on social issues like gay marriage and forced “conversion” therapy. The president reportedly had many friends in the gay community, though he kept that inconvenient fact largely out of the public eye.
No, Reagan likely wouldn’t have posted armed guards every two feet along the U.S.-Mexico border and demanded the deportation of all illegal immigrants. As now has been widely reported — though some people seem to have forgotten or ignored — Reagan himself was responsible for a massive amnesty program in 1986.
And, no, Reagan probably wouldn’t have turned last week’s downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 into an opportunity to whack Russia over the head with tough political rhetoric and military action.
“The Ukrainians say they have proof that it was the Russians that shot it down,” Glenn Beck, conservative talk radio host, said Friday, not long after the plane crash. “We know that Russia has done that before: KAL-007. Anybody my age remembers that. It was a time in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was declaring them an ‘evil empire’ and they shot down a Korean airliner — KAL 007 — and it was a very big deal. Because Ronald Reagan got up — we should see if we can find the Ronald Reagan audio of the speech he gave after KAL 007 — I can guarantee you it was a lot different.”
Really? Was it?
Reagan waited several days after the Korean airliner was shot down (he was on vacation), taking “a horseback ride” while experts sought answers about what really happened, according to the Washington Post. When he finally delivered remarks about the Sept. 1, 1983, incident, his words were stern, but hardly vaulted the U.S. to high-alert status against its Russian adversaries.
“My fellow Americans, I’m coming before you tonight about a Korean airline massacre,” Reagan reportedly said Sept. 5, 1983. “The attack by the Soviet Union against 269 innocent men, women, and children aboard an unarmed Korean passenger plane. This crime against humanity must never be forgotten, here or throughout the world.”
And what happened next?
Reagan “settled for a number of weak-sounding measures such as slowing cultural exchanges, and extending limits on landing rights for Soviet civilian airliners,” Steven F. Hayward, a conservative historian wrote in 2001’s “The Age of Reagan,” as noted by columnist Dick Polman.
Then ... we forgot. Until last week, of course.
In the mere days since the Malaysia Airlines flight was shot out of the sky, we have more questions than answers. The identity of the culprits still is uncertain. We know it would be convenient if Russia had its finger on the button of those surface-to-air missiles that likely brought down the plane, but did it?
For some, the truth is simply a pesky bit of information in the way of their goals. That’s the case with many who have co-opted Reagan’s legacy to suit their own agendas.
In reality, Reagan wasn’t the man his opponents thought he was during his White House tenure, and he wasn’t the man his most ardent followers imagine today. For better or worse, he was just a man.
Creating a bastardized and god-like status — complete with unflinching, unquestioning loyalty — for anyone, whether Reagan or Obama, is a dangerous step toward the kinds of “evil empires” the Gipper and other U.S. presidents of both political parties spent the 20th Century fighting against.
— Tommy Felts,