Tear Down This Myth: How Reagan's Legacy Haunts Our Future

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Tear Down This Myth, by Will Bunch. Copyright © 2009 by Will Bunch. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.


It's always sunny at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley -- or at least it seemed that way to a lifelong East Coaster who visited the imposing hilltop edifice in the desert-dry heat of an August morning, ninety-six days before the 2008 election. On this particular morning in America, the soft whistle of mountain winds was interrupted every minute or two by the hum of minivans carrying families making pit stops on cross-country caravans, rental cars emerging from the LAX sprawl, even the occasional tour bus. Fittingly, there's really no way to reach the remote Reagan Library that doesn't involve the burning of a lot of fossil fuels. The last half mile or so of Presidential Drive climbs steeply past banners of the other forty-one men who served as president; coincidentally or not, the failed chief executives who bracketed Reagan and then finally the divisive Clinton and Bush 43 are clustered near the entrance to the Gipper's glimmering red-tile shrine. A couple of the families I met this day had spent the previous afternoon on the wild and wet Hollywood razzle-dazzle of the rides and studio tour at Universal Studios, and now they were working their way up to a different type of stagecraft, the more serious kind, the stagecraft that made world history.

This landmark was now ground zero for the Ronald Reagan myth, where the Great Communicator still speaks in an odd kind of way from the Great Beyond to a new generation of American families, hundreds every day, from moms and dads who were still watching The Smurfs during the years of Reagan's presidency to their offspring, born when the eighties lived only on VH1. Simply put, Ronald Reagan is about as real to this generation as George Gipp and Knute Rockne were to moviegoers in 1940, and his saga has been increasingly repackaged in that same kind of cleaned-up and reshuffled Hollywood biopic style, except now in living Sunbelt-Big Sky Technicolor. Seemingly every artifact of Reagan's ninety three years on Earth has been arrayed in Simi Valley with the same storytelling skill that Operation Serenade brought to the funeral week that concluded here. Visitors are told that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War and brought respect back to the American presidency. Inside the giant hangar of the Air Force One pavilion, the outer walkway is divided down the middle by a replica of the Berlin Wall. On the west side of the mock wall are Reagan's freedom exhortations, while east of the wall are written the worst of "We will bury you"-style commie propaganda. That's just a facsimile, but outside on the grounds is the real deal, a towering 6,668-pound graffiti-covered monolith that was picked up in 1990 from some newfangled German capitalists selling pieces for $125,000 each; the purchaser was hamburger mogul Carl Karcher of Carl's Jr. restaurants fame. (Karcher died in 2008; some of his other contributions to the cause of freedom included bankrolling a failed 1978 California measure called Proposition 6, which would have fired all gays and lesbians working in public schools, and also major fund raising for John Schmitz, a far-right Orange County congressman by way of the John Birch Society.)

Karcher is just one of the big-name donors whose names and plaques are strewn around the library building and grounds like so many rocks and boulders left behind by a glacier; the first thing a visitor to the complex notices are the signs along the walkway proclaiming "The Freedom Path ... Provided by the Generosity of Harold Simmons." (So it's true what they say, that freedom isn't free.) Simmons is a Texan who got rich as a corporate raider in the Reagan-led 1980s economy and is now a billionaire whose company backed the legal defense fund of two Iran-Contra figures and later gave $3 million to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which targeted John Kerry, and then nearly $3 million to a group running ads linking Barack Obama to a once-violent 1960s radical. The donor plaques from mostly Republican bigwigs and a few Hollywood stars like Merv Griffin and Bob Hope assault the visitor, who is also asked at several spots along the way to make his or her own donation, on top of the twelvedollar admission fee. It doesn't escape notice that there are several donor citations either for Rupert Murdoch or his "fair and balanced" News Corporation, which includes the Fox News Channel, where top-rated host Sean Hannity is prone to ask viewers "What would Reagan do?" The library's "Founders" also include four sovereign nations that prospered mightily during the Reagan years: Japan, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

In all fairness, the twelve-dollar E-ticket to see all those personal artifacts -- and of course a ton of video -- is also an enjoyable two-hour romp for any modern American history buff, and you have to keep reminding yourself that the real Prospero-like wizardry here is not so much what they leave in, but what they leave out. It starts in the very first hallway, where father Jack Reagan is no longer a nomadic alcoholic (as even Reagan himself described vividly in his autobiography) but rather someone from whom the Gipper is quoted as learning "the value of hard work and ambition and maybe a little something about telling a story." His noncombat military career is romanticized. He joined the Army Reserves Cavalry in 1937, and said, "Ever since I'd been addicted to Saturday matinees, I had an affection for those scenes when a troop of cavalrymen in blue tunics and gold braid, flags raised and bugles blowing, raced across the prairie to rescue beleaguered pioneers." A few feet farther on the museum walk, now-politician Reagan is portrayed as riding to the rescue of low taxes and small government, even if a few facts get hacked off along the ride. His epic $1 billion California tax increase in 1967, the largest of its kind at that time, is praised because he also "stood firm on a tax break for homeowners." A statue of a massively obese Uncle Sam is attached to his 1980 quote that "I believe it is clear that our government is overweight and overfed. Indeed, it is time for the government to go on a diet," and leads into his promise for what we now know was a short-lived federal hiring freeze after he took office the following year.

There's no note for visitors about Reagan accumulating more debt in real dollars than all the presidents who came before him combined, or about the fact that the federal payroll increased from 1981 to 1989. Amazingly, there is also no mention anywhere of the Iran-Contra affair, the scandal that almost toppled his presidency. (The executive director, Duke Blackwood, told an interviewer in 2007 that some Iran-Contra material was taken out during some renovations and that "at some point in time, we hope to bring it back. But again, that's the fluidity of a museum. You can't have the same thing, you know, for ten, fifteen, twenty years.") The few nods to "balance" are so obscure they surely sail right over the heads of most casual visitors. A wall at the rear corner of the first big room does show some editorial cartoons criticizing Reagan (in bed with an MX missile, for example) but no captions to explain them to tourists, including those not yet born at the time. You would be shocked, shocked to learn that a Reagan museum seems to place a higher value on imagery and on symbolism than on facts; while there's no room for Iran-Contra, there's plenty of space for sculptor Veryl Goodnight's The Day the Wall Came Down, which shows a stampede of wild western horses toppling ... well, by this point you can probably guess what they were toppling. "Today history is what we decide it is."

Since Reagan died in June 2004, visits to the library have soared. More than one million people passed through the front entrance over the next four years, passing the denim-clad bronze cowboy of Reagan in the After the Ride statue, originally created for the Cowboy Hall of Fame, but instead standing guard at the library entrance. Needless to say, most don't come for the politics, but for the celebrity factor or simply the "wow" factor of walking through Air Force One. As I listened to the chatter of the visitors, mostly seniors or families with school-aged children, it was the pop culture stuff that always got the most commentary, especially for an exhibit of the former first lady's White House-era dresses and the like, called "Nancy Reagan -- a First Lady's Style." The din grew as the summer crowd filed past the fiery hues and frills of Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta. "Oh man, that is classy!" I heard one elderly man exclaim as he was wheeled past.

The most interesting comments I heard were from parents with their young kids; many of the parents had been in grade school themselves during the 1980s, and their recollections of Ronald Reagan seem a bit like those you might have of a benevolent distant father who died when you were young. While their images of Reagan had been shaped first around those fuzzy memories, they were sharpened by pictures, the ones on TV, the man who won the Cold War and brought home that concrete slab of the wall. "He was an optimist about this country, and when he got to the Oval Office he was honored to be there -- there was something about [the way] he presented himself," Michael Clouse of Amarillo, Texas, told me. He, his wife, Kelly, and his son, Michael, had flown into Burbank the day before, gone to Universal Studios, then got up early to drive to Simi Valley. Kelly admitted in a softer voice that she was just too young when Reagan was in the White House, but "I learned a lot when he passed away." Had she watched a lot of the TV coverage?

"I watched it all day," she said. "I learned about how great he was."

The Reagan Library is also a place for that, but in the twenty-first century it also seems to be a great place to escape the real world. It offers an expansive horizon and dry cooling breezes, and limitless views of sagebrush hills and the mist shrouding the Pacific, and little else. It is another "shining city on a hill," and so in a strange way it reminded me of 1984 and New York governor Mario Cuomo's famous retort to the president's beloved phrase:

But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city; there's another part to the shining city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.

Simi Valley, California, may not be exactly the kind of place that Cuomo had in mind, but it could be today. Mostly invisible from the mountaintop library, it is a sprawling, centerless, earth-toned exurb of more than one hundred thousand souls. And like Cuomo's other city, Simi Valley is now a place where not "everybody seems to be doing well."

The culprits have largely been rising gas prices and falling home values. On my way out of town, I paid $4.15 per gallon of gas, a price that would have been considered an outrage a couple of years earlier but on this day was an improvement.

Copyright © 2009 Free Press, a Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

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