Jesus of Nazareth was born in 5 BCE (or so) and crucified around 30 CE. The first few texts that make up the New Testament were written beginning around 50 CE in Koine Greek. The book was redacted into its final form in the mid–fourth century but not translated into English until 1380. In other words, the stories in the Bible on Jesus are not the result of any contemporaneous reporting but rather, quite literally, the stuff of myth.
The same cannot be said of Ronald Reagan. We have, for instance, contemporaneous reports that Reagan apparently was a pathological liar. He bragged of liberating concentration camps in Germany although he spent all of World War II in Hollywood. He invented “a verbal message” from the pope in support of his Central America policies and lied about that too. He insisted, in 1985, that the leader of South Africa’s vicious apartheid regime, P.W. Botha, had “eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country.” Pants on fire…
We also know from contemporaneous reports that Reagan approved of genocide when committed by professed anticommunists. For instance, he thought Guatemalan strongman Gen. Ríos Montt was a dedicated democrat who was receiving “a bum rap” from human rights critics. In fact, according to that nation’s official nine-volume Historical Clarification Commission report, issued in 1999, Montt’s “genocide” resulted in the murder of approximately 200,000 people, mainly Mayan Indians, during his dictatorial reign of terror. The report singled out the Reagan administration for supporting the “criminal counterinsurgency” that undertook these murders. One could go on with such examples almost indefinitely. When Salvadoran death squads were murdering 200 people a week, and Vice President Bush flew an emergency mission to San Salvador to try to get things to calm down a little, Reagan nevertheless absolved the murderers of responsibility. Instead, he blamed “guerrilla forces” who likely committed “these violent acts” to “bring down the government,” lamenting that “the right wing will be blamed for it.”
I am actually a fan of Jesus, the Jewish carpenter and preacher—at least as he has been portrayed by myth and by history—and so I would not dare insult his memory by comparing him to that mendacious genocide-enabler Ronald Reagan. But many Republicans do. When Republican candidates are asked in debates to name their heroes or their favorite philosophers, it is often a tossup between Jesus and Reagan. Lately questioners have had to eliminate the two from allowable answers because otherwise every answer would automatically be the same.
I’m not sure when this began. It struck me as a rather outlandish note of brainless fealty to myth when, in 1999, one of the former president’s earliest hagiographers, Dinesh D’Souza, wrote, Jesus-people style, “We simply need to ask in every situation that arises, What would Reagan have done?” This was two years after Grover Norquist began his Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which succeeded in renaming Washington National Airport after Reagan and then went on to campaign for a significant public work to bear Reagan’s name in all fifty states and something—anything—after him in all of America’s 3,054 counties.
The success of this project—not merely in naming stuff but in reversing the nation’s memory of that presidency—is breathtaking. As author Will Bunch reminds us, Reagan’s current high standing in polls of ex-presidents is a recent phenomenon. While a January 2010 CNN/Opinion Research poll about presidents of the past fifty years put Reagan just behind Clinton and JFK, his ratings while in office would have also put him behind Eisenhower, LBJ and the first Bush. “Shortly after Reagan left office,” Bunch notes, “several polls found even the much-maligned Jimmy Carter to be more popular.”
Americans were smarter back then, or at least more historically informed. In an October 1989 USA Today poll, only 14 percent of Americans thought Reagan deserved most of the credit for ending the cold war. A majority credited Mikhail Gorbachev. Contemporary Reagan worshipers have to engage in act after act of Reagan-like self-deception to put their man on the pedestal he so firmly occupies. How else to explain a conservative demigod who not only supported amnesty for illegal immigrants but actually signed a bill into law giving it to them? Or one who, as president, signed one of the largest tax increases in American history into law? What about the guy who increased not only the size of the federal deficit but also the size of the government relative to the rest of the economy? (As Michael Kinsley keeps noting every few years, Bill Clinton reduced spending from 21.4 percent of GDP to 18.5 percent, or “three times as much as Reagan did.” Reagan also increased the number of workers on the federal payroll by 61,000, as compared with Clinton’s reduction of 373,000.)
Reagan gets a pass from his supporters, and from so many in the press, because he was, in the words of his self-chosen biographer, Edmund Morris, “an apparent airhead.” Morris found Reagan, in private postpresidential conversations, to be “sometimes stunningly ignorant.” The late president’s son Ron Reagan postulates that his father’s Alzheimer’s was already present during the latter part of his presidency, recalling that he found him “lost in a fog of depression and denial” during the Iran/Contra scandal. Of course, one cannot say for sure. Reagan had long had a history, as one senior aide explained, in which he tended to “build these little worlds and live in them.”
Reagan was certainly a handsome man, charming in his own goofy way and a passable B-movie actor. But his greatest talent was for hypocrisy. As Dick Cheney observed early in George W. Bush’s presidency when bestowing yet another gift of tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans: “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” What, I ask you, would Jesus say?