In announcing his candidacy for president, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky said: “I believe in applying Reagan’s approach to foreign policy to the Iran issue.”
Huh? In late 1986, we learned that the Reagan administration had sold arms to Iran and diverted the proceeds to Nicaraguan anticommunist rebels called the Contras. At one point, the national security adviser secretly brought the Iranians a key-shaped chocolate cake to mark the anticipated “opening.” The Iran-Contra affair was a fiasco that humiliated the United States and led to talk that the House might impeach Reagan.
That scenario is surely not what Senator Paul hand in mind. He was in medical school during Iran-Contra, so he was probably not paying much attention to anything but macular detachments. Still, one might hope that he or somebody on his staff would know a little about an important chapter of recent American history.
The point here is not to fault Paul in particular but to raise a larger point. Especially since his 2004 passing, President Reagan has become iconic. In a 2014 poll, a 35 percent plurality of Americans said that he was the best president since the Second World War. Accordingly, politicians routinely cite Reagan to justify what they want to do. Trouble is, many of these invocations of the Gipper are historically wrong.
For instance, Gov. John Kasich (R) of Ohio declined to criticize Paul, saying, “I believe in Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment, which is don't attack a fellow Republican.” There are a couple of problems with that statement. First, credit for the “commandment” belongs not to Reagan but to Gaylord Parkinson, who chaired the California GOP in the 1960s. Second, Reagan did not abide by it. In 1976, he challenged President Ford for the party’s nomination, and came within one Brylcreemed hair of toppling him.
In his 2012 presidential campaign, Texas Gov. Rick Perry cast himself as the race’s true Reaganite. He also said: “We’re dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax.” Apparently, he did not realize that many of them were off the tax rolls because of President Reagan’s 1986 tax reform bill. Reagan regarded that measure as one of his great accomplishments, as he explained when signing it: “Families will get a long overdue tax break, and millions of poor will be dropped from the tax rolls altogether. It's no exaggeration when I call tax reform simultaneously the best jobs creation bill, the best antipoverty legislation, and the best profamily legislation the U.S. Congress has ever produced.”
Indeed, many aspects of the Reagan record are more ambiguous than today’s politicians let on. It is true that he championed tax cuts, but he also signed several tax hikes, including a 1982 measure that was the largest peacetime tax increase up to that time. (Newt Gingrich accused him of “trying to score a touchdown for liberalism, for the liberal welfare state, for big government, for the Internal Revenue Service, for multinational corporations, and for the various forces that consistently voted against the president.” As president, he took a pro-life stand, but as governor of California, he signed a law that relaxed restrictions on abortion.
It’s not just Republicans who distort Reagan history. Chris Matthews wrote a silly book claiming that Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill had a friendly relationship. Nonsense.
O’Neill repeatedly attacked Reagan at a very personal level. “The evil is in the White House at the present time,” he said in July 1984. “And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He's cold. He's mean. He's got ice water for blood.”
Politicians do have a lot to learn from Ronald Reagan, but the lessons are more complicated than today’s political rhetoric would suggest.
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.