The American people adored Ronald Reagan, a fact author Craig Shirley says was proven in the national outpouring of grief following Reagan’s death in 2004, ignored by the liberal elite and co-opted by shrewd Democrats who figured they would join Reagan since they couldn’t beat him.
Shirley is the author of three volumes on Reagan, the latest of which is “Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan.” His prior books chronicled Reagan’s insurgent challenge to President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 and his historic victory over President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Reagan’s landslide wins in 1980 and 1984 were evidence of the public’s affinity for Reagan, as was the convincing victory of his vice president, George H.W. Bush, in 1988. But Shirley says the entire nation saw it in June 2004, after Reagan’s death from Alzheimer’s-related pneumonia at the age of 93. From California to Washington and back, hundreds of thousands of Americans paid their respects in person. Millions more did so while watching the events from home.
Shirley says the week crystallized how much the liberal elite detested Reagan and how much the people admired him.
“The elites always criticized him, derided him, loathed him, attacked him. The American people, by and large, learned not only to support him but a lot of them actually grew to adore him because he was in touch with the American people unlike any president since John Kennedy and, before, that, Franklin Roosevelt,” said Shirley.
The reason was not complicated.
“He got the support of the American people because he was part of the American people. He was the quintessential American. He was’t elitist. He wasn’t out of touch. He was, in many ways, his own one-man focus group,” said Shirley.
During the Reagan presidency, the media and Democrats relentlessly criticized Reagan for being a nuclear cowboy and for an economic agenda they branded as favoring the rich. Upon Reagan’s death, however, Shirley says the liberal elites and politicians had very different pubic reactions to Reagan.
For the academics and the press, nothing changed.
“The media elite, academia, those people never understood Reagan, never understood his appeal, would actually resort to making up things about him,” said Shirley.
But, curiously, elected Democrats were much more kind, and Shirley says the reason went far deeper than public figures being reluctant to speak ill of the dead.
“A lot of Democratic politicians, (then-Michigan Gov.) Jennifer Granholm and others, were very, very praiseworthy. The reason is because they saw up close and personal the rise of the Reagan Democrat. They knew that Reagan had forged a cultural and psychological bond with these voters,” said Shirley, who says Democrats were keenly focused on not offending those constituents who helped to trigger the Reagan Revolution.
“They were still Democrats but they were culturally conservative and had grown as a political phenomenon, the most important political phenomenon in the history of American politics since the rise of the New Deal,” said Shirley.
Rather than demonize Reagan after his death, Democrats even embraced some aspects of his record. Shirley says that’s a far cry from the way the Clinton administration tried to divorce itself from any connection to Reagan during the boom of the 1990’s.
“Isn’t that interesting? The Clintons derided the decade of the 1980’s as a decade of greed and yet the very same economic underpinnings that fueled the growth of the 1990’s, which came about after Gingrich took control of Congress, was not called a decade of greed. Isn’t that curious?” said Shirley.
President Obama has invoked Reagan on multiple issues, from pushing for increased spending for transportation to legalizing millions of people in the U.S. illegally. As fewer and fewer Americans remember the Reagan years, Shirley says it’s vital for us to know the real legacy and what is being distorted for political purposes.
“Go back and filter the truth. Find out the unvarnished, the real truth about Reagan on immigration and things like that. He wasn’t for open borders. He wasn’t for amnesty,” said Shirley.
Reagan did legalize some three million illegal immigrants in 1986 in exchange for stringent border security that never happened. As the immigration and amnesty debate rages today, Shirley says you have to understand the context in which Reagan agreed to the immigration deal.
“The ’86 immigration bill came at the height of the Cold War. He wasn’t about to hand Gorbachev a giant public relations bonanza by forcibly evicting people from this country at a time where he was speaking out to Gorbachev to free the people of his country and the Soviet-dominated countries of the Warsaw Pact and the Baltics,” said Shirley.
As a result of Reagan’s dealings on immigration and a tax hike that should have been offset with major spending cuts that never materialized, critics of today’s conservative movement suggest that Reagan may not even be welcome in the party today.
“The only people who make that argument are liberals in the Republican Party or moderates in the Republican Party or establishmentarians. I don’t know any conservative who says, with a straight face, that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t be welcome today in the Republican Party. Of course he would,” said Shirley.
The great frustration for die hard Reagan supporters is that Republicans have been unable to elect or even nominate another candidate cut from the Reagan mold. Shirley says it’s unfair to look at the current crop and try to determine who could be the next Reagan. He says we’ll never know until that person is actually president.
“As I tell audiences, Ronald Reagan wasn’t Ronald Reagan before Ronald Reagan was Ronald Reagan. And by that I mean that very few, if any, actually saw his greatness before he was great. In the long history of the American presidency, there’s only one man who was thought would be a great president before he was president and that was George Washington,” said Shirley.
Different admirers of Reagan point to different accomplishments as most significant during his eight years in office. Shirley says Reagan had his own answer to that question.
“The two things that he cited as being the most important was, one, the restoration of the American economy, which created 19 million new jobs. Second was restoration of America’s morale,” said Shirley.
He says Reagan saw those as vital ingredients towards accomplishing his top goal.
“He believed that America operated on a higher moral plane than any other country in history. He assumed the presidency in that fashion and he knew that to defeat the Soviets he had to have a strong economy. And to have a strong economy he had to raise America’s morale,” said Shirley.
As the years roll along, Reagan’s history will be written less by those who lived it and more by reporters and academics who largely disparage Reagan. Shirley says the challenge is to fight back against revisionism wherever it rears it’s head.
“Fortunately, there’s a group of Reagan historians and biographers who have demonstrated a willingness and ability and sometimes courage to push back against disinformation about Ronald Reagan. George Santayana once said that, ‘History is a pack of lies agreed upon, written by people who weren’t there.’ The history of Ronald Reagan is too important to be lied about or written by people who weren’t there,” said Shirley.