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Will Bunch: Tearing Down The Reagan 'Myth'

Journalist Will Bunch critiques the 40th president in his new book Tear Down This Myth: How The Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics And Haunts Our Future.


Other segments from the episode on February 5, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 5, 2009: interview with Will Bunch; Interview with Douglas Brinkley; Review of John Hassell's "Last Night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street."


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Will Bunch: Tearing Down The Reagan 'Myth


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" - probably the most famous of all President Reagan's quoted phrases. "Tear Down This Myth" is the name of a new book about the Reagan legacy. It argues that the Reagan legacy that is claimed by the right and that was so often referred to by Republican presidential candidates is not an accurate description of the Reagan presidency. According to the book, the legacy version is a myth consciously created by a new, aggressive breed of conservatives to unite and energize the right.

My guest Will Bunch is the author of "Tear Down This Myth." He's a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and the author of its blog, Attytood. Will Bunch, welcome to Fresh Air.

Mr. WILL BUNCH (Senior Writer, Philadelphia Daily News; Blogger, Attytood; Author, "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future"): Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: So what do you consider to be the Reagan myth?

Mr. BUNCH: The Reagan myth is really pretty simple. Basically, people want Ronald Reagan remembered as the man who won the Cold War and as the man who turned the American economy around. In fact, if you go to the Reagan Library, for example, that message is just drilled into you. I mean, there's basically, you see - there's the actual Berlin Wall and there's replicas of the Berlin wall and there's quotes from the Berlin Wall, and you know, so this idea that Ronald Reagan brought down the Berlin Wall and that he cut taxes and saved the American economy. I mean, I think those are really two essential elements.

GROSS: You've described the myth making around President Reagan as a partially very consciously and contrived process. You write about something called the Reagan Legacy Project. What was the project?

Mr. BUNCH: In 1997, Grover Norquist, who's a well-known anti-tax advocate and kind of a nexus point for a lot of conservatives in D.C. who work at think tanks or work for some of these conservative magazines.

GROSS: And he has weekly meetings that bring together conservatives from many different parts of government and religion, and I think industry as well.

Mr. BUNCH: Right, absolutely. I mean, he's kind of...

GROSS: Tries to find common points to build alliances around main agenda items.

Mr. BUNCH: Absolutely. And he's kind of a leader of almost this kind of permanent shadow unelected, you know, conservative, you know, shadow government in D.C. in terms of his influence under the radar screen. That said, I mean, in 1997, you have to go back to that as a time that the conservative movement in this country was really at kind of its low point because Bill Clinton's presidency was at its high point. He'd just been reelected by a huge margin, and the economy was doing great in 1997 on every cylinder. And conservatives were really struggling for a message. You know, they were looking ahead to the 2000 election when Clinton would be leaving office, and they weren't really sure what their message was for the American people. And you know, I think they were trying to get back to their roots, in a sense. Most of them had come to Washington during the Reagan years, and you know, saw them as, you know, kind of spiritual godfather of their movement.

But it was partly because of what I think a dearth of ideas in the present that, you know, in trying to go back to Reagan, they basically remade Reagan in the image of the policies they were trying to portray, which was, you know, militarism, taxes can only be cut, those sorts of things. And the Reagan Legacy Project was this very interesting way to try and get the American people to associate Reagan with greatness.

GROSS: So what was the project?

Mr. BUNCH: Basically, it was to establish memorials to Reagan's legacy as they portrayed it all over the country. And you know, it's interesting. They chose National Airport in Washington, D.C. as a place to start, I guess maybe because so many, you know, liberal media members and members of Congress and their you-point(ph) travel through that airport maybe. But that was their first target, and they introduced a bill to rename the airport as Reagan National Airport, and as we all know, it succeeded. It is now Reagan National Airport.

And you know, this was not long after Reagan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and he had made a very graceful exit from the public stage, and you weren't going to get much opposition to a bill like that. I mean, some Democrats said, well, you know, Reagan's record is kind of vastly overrated and he was very divisive, but I'm not going to oppose this bill.

The thing is the Ronald Reagan legacy movement wanted to replicate this all over the country. I mean, their stated goal was to rename something for Ronald Reagan whether it was a library or a post office or a middle school in every county of America. That's more than 3,000 counties. I mean, they have not achieved that, but the success that they have achieved is pretty remarkable.

GROSS: Does the project still exist?

Mr. BUNCH: Absolutely. It's affiliated with Grover Norquist's anti-tax organization in Washington, and it has a board of directors which is a kind of who's who of, you know, people in the conservative movement who basically date back to the time of Reagan. And it is still active. It is still pushing to make this Friday, February 6th, Reagan's birthday, as Reagan Day nationally. They'd like to see Reagan perhaps put on money, either some sort of currency or have him on the dime alternating with FDR, which would be kind of ironic since you'd have the father of the New Deal and an opponent of the New Deal alternating on dimes. So it's still a very active movement.

GROSS: So how significant do you think the Reagan Legacy Project has actually been in the creation of the Reagan myth? I mean, if what they're doing is naming airports and roads and libraries and medical centers and stuff, how significant is that in creating or recreating what the Reagan story is?

Mr. BUNCH: I argue that it is significant because history is very complex. You know, it was complex as it was happening, and you know, as 20, 30 years pass it becomes even more complicated for busy people to, you know, reflect on the nuances of, you know, 1980s economics and the deficit and what Reagan's real record was. But you know, when you're driving down a road and it's a Ronald Reagan Freeway on a bright, sunny day, it's hard for you not to associate this must have been a great man, you know, to have this road named after him. And in fact, you know, the people with the legacy project basically said that, that we want people to, you know, when they're driving to work or when they're going to the post office or whatever, you know, they will associate Ronald Reagan with greatness. So it was a very conscious effort, and I think on a very subliminal level very successful.

GROSS: Do you think that the Reagan myth was something that was basically consciously created? I mean, one of the points you make in your book is that the Reagan myth has been very helpful for people with a very conservative ideology because they have a hero to point to, they have an image to point to that they can rally around and focus, and it gives the movement a narrative and a hero. How much of that do you think was conscious and how much of it do you think is just a genuine affection for and appreciation of what Reagan accomplished?

Mr. BUNCH: I think it's been very hard for the modern generation of Republicans to develop a leader, you know, who has the kind of charisma that Ronald Reagan has had. And so since nobody's going to really be able to project that kind of charisma, I think it's like, well, I'll borrow it, you know, I'll show that I can be another Ronald Reagan either by showing my loyalty to Reagan, or you know, the current generation, you know, of Republican leaders, the people who are running for president in 2008 were people who were around during the Reagan years.

John McCain, I think, very successfully, he was having a problem with the conservative wing of the party, and so he went to great lengths to call himself a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution, and in fact, he made this claim that seems pretty fantastical that when he was a prisoner of war in Hanoi that somehow word had gotten to him in the POW camp about this inspiring new governor of California named Ronald Reagan.

He also ran an ad attacking Mitt Romney for misrepresenting how much - that Mitt Romney had been a follower of Reagan, and said, if we can't trust Mitt Romney on Ronald Reagan, what else can we trust him on? You know, so it was like fealty to Ronald Reagan was almost more important than discussing the economic crisis or subprime mortgages or the issues that we had today. So I think it's a charisma gap.

What worries me, though, is that to be like Reagan, they're adopting policies of Reagan that don't really fit our current situation. You know, that the low tax, the push for low taxes in the economic stimulus plan I think really traces back from this desire to we're going to follow the Reagan blueprint no matter what.

GROSS: There's a chapter in your book, "Tear Down This Myth," that focuses on President Reagan's funeral and the press coverage of that funeral. Do you think that the press coverage and the way the funeral was produced reflects what you describe as the Reagan myth?

Mr. BUNCH: Absolutely. And you know, you can certainly make the point that some of it is the format. You know, we live in this world of just non-stop cable news where they're looking for a good story, and you know, Reagan but also the Reagan myth is a good narrative. And the people who planned Reagan's funeral were very conscious about the fact that they wanted to use this as kind of the last photo-op. The people who had been Reagan's advance team while he was president basically took over the funeral, and they called it Operation Serenade. And the planners give a very interesting interview to the Wall Street Journal where they said our focus when Reagan was president was always, you know, picture, headline, story. What's the picture, what's the headline and what's the story that the media's going to get out of this event? And they did the same - they consciously did the same thing for Reagan's funeral, that we want the headline, picture and story from this event to be this was the man whowon the Cold War, and this was the man who restored America's greatness.

And you know, they went to great lengths to give the media that storyline, and you had a media setup that was, you know, happy to oblige. And you know, so you saw this wall-to-wall coverage. You saw, you know, non-stop booking of guests who were from Reagan's inner circle, you know, his former speech writers who were going to give you that portrayal of Reagan, and people weren't really going to hear about the more divisive aspects of Reagan's presidency or the aspects of the presidency that were a failure, whether it was the Iran-Contra scandal or the huge deficits.

Part of the problem is, though, you have entire generation or maybe two generations of Americans who don't really have vivid memories of his actual presidency. A lot of people, they're - what they know about Ronald Reagan is what they know from watching that funeral week on TV, and that really - that really was, I think, a defining moment for the Reagan myth.

GROSS: What are your concerns about people who have learned about Reagan from recent media coverage of him like that funeral?

Mr. BUNCH: That when they hear their political leaders saying we need to adopt the policies of Ronald Reagan, you know, Dick Cheney said at one key point during the Bush presidency that Reagan showed that deficits don't matter. And you know, when you have a public that says, you know, the way forward for America is to have a president like Ronald Reagan and then you have leaders who say we're going to do this the way Reagan did it, it makes people more receptive of that message.

You know, yeah, of course, Reagan was that great president. You know, I saw, you know, I remember watching his funeral on TV. You know, why don't - he was right about tax cuts or he was right that it didn't - the deficit didn't really matter, or you know, he was right to call our enemies an evil empire, you know. So I think there's a very strong connection between the way that, you know, conservatives have been able to sell certain policies and the establishment of this myth with the everyday person.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Will Bunch, author of the new book, "Tear Down this Myth: How the Reagan Legacy has Distorted our Politics and Haunts Our Future." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is journalist Will Bunch. His new book, "Tear Down this Myth," argues that the Reagan legacy that is claimed by the right was consciously created by aggressive conservatives to unite and energize the right.

GROSS: You say that the creation of the Reagan myth depends on omitting key parts of the Reagan presidency that were negative, and at the top of your list is the Iran-Contra scandal. Do you think that there was like a conscious attempt to eliminate the Reagan - the Iran-Contra scandal from the story?

Mr. BUNCH: There must be. I mean, if you go to the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, you know, this massive edifice costing millions of dollars that was - is basically a museum to the history of Ronald Reagan. And here you have a scandal that for those of us who were around in the late 1980s know really threatened to bring down his entire presidency for a time.

I mean, can you imagine a Richard Nixon museum that didn't have anything about Watergate? Now, Reagan didn't resign, obviously, but you know, there were - there were articles of impeachment were prepared. That entire year, 1987, was dominated by congressional hearings about the Iran-Contra scandal, which, you know, just for your listeners who don't know, was kind of two elements. One, a cornerstone of Reagan's foreign policy was funding anti-communist rebels in Central America. It became a very controversial program, and Congress passed an act, the Boland Act, which barred the government from spending money for that purpose.

At the same time, things were not going well for the U.S in the Middle East and a number of Americans had been taken hostage in Lebanon under Iranian influence. And this became a big problem for the Reagan administration, and he decided on this policy of doing arms deals with Iran, which was at war with Iraq at that time. And these arms deals would get Iran to use its influence to free the hostages. That didn't exactly work. If you were freed, the more were taken.

In the meantime, as this scheme evolved, they were making money from these arms sales, and they said, let's use this money to secretly fund these rebels in Central America even though Congress had barred them from doing that.

So basically, there were two secret elements - trading arms for hostages and then funding these rebels illegally. And you know, as I said, it led to massive congressional hearings. Reagan's popularity plunged down to like 40 percent, and it's rarely talked about nowadays. It's interesting.

GROSS: Another key part of the Reagan presidency that you say is eliminated from the Reagan myth is how divided America was during his eight years in office.

Mr. BUNCH: Absolutely. You know, when Reagan died in 2004, a number of articles described him as one of the most popular presidents in American history or that, you know, that he left office as one of the most popular presidents we've ever had. The statistical evidence to back that up just isn't there.

You know, people have analyzed the Gallop approval ratings throughout his presidency, and it was average. It was, you know, on the level of Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, you know. Very - presidents who have - you know, Bill Clinton was impeached. You know, the first Bush only served one term and was voted out of office. And that was about the level of Reagan's approval rating. It was way behind Eisenhower, JFK, FDR, Lyndon Johnson had a much higher approval rating. And you know, this reflects the fact that he was a very divisive figure. I mean, certainly he had virtually zero support from African-Americans, for example. You know, his policies were seen as very harmful to black Americans.

GROSS: And also, in terms of creating the Reagan myth, you say things were eliminated that don't fit the conservative ideology. For example, you say, yes, Reagan really slashed taxes, particularly for the wealthy. But later on in his presidency, he increased taxes, and the tax increase is not a part of the Reagan myth.

Mr. BUNCH: Right. Well, Reagan was - he was the great communicator, and he was very good at portraying a broad conservative message to the American people. But when he had to govern, he actually was kind of a great compromiser. I mean, he - he was willing to - to make compromises to get things done. You almost never hear about the fact that he reached a deal with Democrats on social security that basically helped to prop up our social security deficit for a number of years, which actually increased payroll taxes. I mean, middle-class Americans took a big hit from that deal, but that's never talked about. He signed off on some sort of tax increase almost every year of his presidency after his first year, including one in 1982 that was, at the time, the largest tax increase in American history, and it was basically to under-do - undo the fact that they '81 tax cut had gone too far.

GROSS: When President Obama was a presidential candidate, he described Ronald Reagan as a transformative president. President Obama's policies are very different than President Reagan's, but yet you wrote an op-ed mentioning some of the things that you think President Obama could learn from President Reagan. What are some of those things?

Mr. BUNCH: I think the main sense is that even - even though we live in kind of a dire time and we face this, you know, massive economic crisis, Ronald Reagan was very successful in connecting with the American people because of his optimism. You know - you know, he clearly had a strong belief in himself and a belief in America that - that we were a good people and that things would - you know, that a brighter future lay ahead. And you know, which was a message that was surprising to a lot of people in 1980 because interest rates were 21 percent, unemployment was so high.

You know, now we face a similar crisis, and I think people - I think people in an over-arching sense need to hear that, you know, that America is a can-do nation and can still do great things. You know, where he needs to differ greatly, though, is on the policy level, you know, kind of rolling back these policies that have created such a wide gulf between the rich and the middle class, for example.

You know, undoing - you know, unfortunately, I think the optimism led to too much optimism about energy and about the environment that - you know - you know, we're tired of doom and gloom in America, so we're tired of doom and gloom about climate change and we're tired of doom and gloom about the world running out of fossil fuel supplies. Well, those are areas where I think we need some realism. So - but again, I think if President Obama, you know, says we're going to fight climate change or says that we're going to, you know, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, it's a challenge to America's greatness that, you know, that a great nation can respond to this challenge. I think in a way he'll be channeling Reagan message-wise, but you know, to achieve a very different result.

GROSS: Will Bunch, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BUNCH: Oh, thanks Terry. Thanks for having me on. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Will Bunch is the author of "Tear Down this Myth." He's the senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and writes its blog, Attytood. We'll hear a different take on the Reagan legacy from historian Doug Brinkley in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
In Praise Of Reagan, Communicator Extraordinaire


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. In the first half of our show, journalist Will Bunch, author of "Tear Down This Myth," argued that the Reagan legacy as claimed by Republicans is a consciously created myth. We asked historian Douglas Brinkley what he has to say about the Reagan legacy. Brinkley edited the book of Reagan's White House diaries. He's a professor of history at Rice University.

Doug Brinkley, welcome back to Fresh Air. Now, you've called President Reagan one of the top five American presidents of the 20th century. Why do you think he merits that?

Prof. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (History, Rice University; Editor, "The Reagan Diaries"): Well, look, Ronald Reagan had left a very large shadow. We used to say that Franklin Roosevelt's shadow went all the way from 1932 to 1980, meaning whether it was Eisenhower or Kennedy or Johnson or Nixon, they were still - politically, they were inclined to have to deal with the legacy of FDR. From 1980 until the election of Barack Obama, we were living in the age of Reagan. He in many ways was the pendulum swing back against FDR and the New Deal in the great society of Lyndon Johnson, and it lasted longer than people thought. Many people thought the age of Reagan might just be eight years or 12 years but it went for a very long time, meaning the Clinton years, which should have been a progressive movement. Instead, keyed(ph) the triangulation and still operated within the very notions of Reaganism, meaning welfare, reform or tax cuts, promoting the big military buildup, et cetera.

And also, I think Reagan stood up for that - at the last minute for the World War II generation, and by the 1980s, before Stephen Ambrose and Spielberg and Brokaw's greatest generation, Regan was talking about the morning again in America, which meant back to World War II, pre-Vietnam, when we were all in this together. There is a Disney-like view that Reagan had that didn't grapple with the fact that women weren't getting equal pay, that Jim Crow existed in the South. Nevertheless, he made the veterans of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and Sicily and Normandy feel that they mattered. And so that whole generation felt that Regan was their president.

GROSS: Now, Will Bunch in his book makes the point that a lot of the Reagan mystique is myth that was manufactured intentionally by a new aggressive breed of conservative that needed a hero to help unite and refuel the right. What's your opinion of that?

Prof. BRINKLEY: I agree with that. But that's only one part of what's going on. I don't think it's so much as a myth. I think presidents have legacies, and they get advocates. There's people that believe Theodore Roosevelt was great or FDR was great or Kennedy or Reagan. And it's personal - it's reasonable to think that people want to admire Ronald Reagan. I think the distortion comes when people leave the history books and try to create saints out of people.

Ronald Reagan was not a saint. He was a good president for his times. He was good because there was a kind of malaise in the country due to double-digit inflation, due to the hostages in Iran, due to the excesses of the great society or at least the misappropriations of funds going on for government programs. Taxes were being raised left and right, and so that we were naturally going to find a force in this country to kind of bring us back in a different direction. Reagan was that.

Even Barack Obama during the campaign trail had nice things to say about Ronald Reagan and Bush 41's foreign policy because if you get the partisanism out of it - the left wants to bash Reagan all the time. The right wants to celebrate him. Let's just be honest and look at what he accomplished in eight years, and you'll find that he was affective, and he was affective because he communicated to the American people that his heart was generally in the right place, that his personality captured people.

And we're going to have books that try to tear Reagan down or books that try to build him up, but the facts are that our national airport will be the Reagan airport forever, and that his presidential library in Simi Valley, California is by far the most visited presidential library in America. And people like Reagan, and I think his image will continue to grow, and it's not just because the hard right is promoting him. I think that people realize in the '80s he did a pretty good job grappling with the big issues of the day.

GROSS: Well, one of Will Bunches points - and let's see if you agree with this - is that some of the pragmatism of Ronald Reagan has been erased by the parts of the right that have made him into a hero because they're hardliners, and they want to portray him that way too. So when he does something pragmatic like raise taxes after he's lowered them, that's kind of erased from the official Regan legacy that the right puts forth. What are your thoughts?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, I think that's also accurate. You know, I'll give you a different example. I mean, look what Reagan had to face when we had our marines killed in 1983 in Lebanon, peacekeepers blown up. He - you know, there was a drumbeat on the right to put in troops, to go to war in the Middle East, and Reagan said, basically, you can always have a war in the Middle East. And he did what was the hardest thing for him to do, and that's not to send troops to pull out of Lebanon, not escalate the situation, there is a pragmatic president at work operating against the hard right in his day.

But look, the right should have Reagan as a hero. He made conservative - along with Barry Goldwater, Reagan made conservatism part of the bloodstream of America. Up until Reagan, at least until Reagan was governor of California, you were seen as somehow a bit of a kooky fringe if you were on the right. Reagan brought the right into the mainstream of America, and that's why they championed him. But they do a disservice by not looking at the historical Ronald Reagan and recognizing that he usually operated from a very centrist position, maybe center right on some issues, but he also tacked center left in that his great gift was his personality. And his personality was one that really wanted to prevent Armageddon.

When I edited Ronald Reagan's diaries, it was quite startling to see a president of the United States in his own handwriting writing the word Armageddon time and again. And he kept telling himself that that was his duty as president is to avoid war. So for all the hawkish rhetoric of the 1980s, we had a Grenada invasion, and we did a little bit of a few strikes with Libya, but by and large, Reagan was able to keep America at peace during his presidency and reduce nuclear weapons in the world more than any other Cold War president. That's his great legacy.

GROSS: You mentioned that you often saw the word Armageddon in Reagan's diaries when you were editing them? Let me give you an example. After Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor, thinking that this reactor was basically preparation for an atomic weapon, Reagan writes in his diaries: Got word of Israeli bombing of Iraq nuclear reactor. I swear I believe Armageddon is near. When I read that, I was wondering, I wonder what he meant by that. What do you think?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Reagan, you know, I think he had a relationship with God that you have to try to understand. When he was shot, for example, in his diary he said, from now on I am serving God. And part of serving God was to be a peacekeeper. Underneath it all was a man desperate to rid the world of nuclear weapons. And it be, even, you know, working closely again with George Shultz, they succeeded to a large degree to make the world a safer place, which again is his enduring accomplishment. That was triggered by kind of California religion about -that he read. He had read a lot of what some people would call subpar religious literature. But beyond critiquing that affect of what he read, the net result was it helped him as president keep his mind on being a peacemaker, not a warmonger.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned that you were interested in the role of faith in President Reagan's life, and I think one of the things President Reagan did was form a political coalition with the religious right. For example, the moral majority was, I think it's fair to say, instrumental in his election or at least in the size of his victory. And I wonder how you see that figuring into the Reagan legacy and the Reagan myth?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, it's very important, and I think he's really the person that brought evangelicals into the Republican fold, and part of it was a backlash on Roe verse(ph) Wade, although Reagan himself barely mentioned that issue during his presidency. Incidentally, if there's an insensitivity to Reagan that historians look at of something that he did wrong, he seemed not to respond to AIDS quickly enough as president. He seemed a bit indifferent to apartheid in South Africa.

One section of the diaries, Bishop Tutu comes to see him. Regan likes Tutu, but he says, you know, he needs to slow down pushing for freedom in South Africa. Yet Reagan never asked anybody in Central Europe to slow down. So, there are these disparities in Ronald Reagan, but I think that the right became a very - the moral majority types in this country, evangelicals, became a group Reagan was able to bring into the coalition and still is really the heart and soul today, I think, of the modern Republican Party.

GROSS: My guest is historian Douglas Brinkley. We'll talk more about the Reagan legacy after a break.

(Soundbite of music)

This is Fresh Air. We're talking about the Reagan legacy. In the first half of our show, we heard from journalist Will Bunch, author of "Tear Down This Myth," which argues that conservatives created a mythologized version of Reagan's legacy to help energize the right. My guest, historian Douglas Brinkley, edited Reagan's White House diaries.

One of the points Will Bunch makes in "Tear Down This Myth" about how the Reagan myth was built is that one thing that's always left out of the Reagan myth is Iran-Contra, the arms-for-hostages scandal. And you edited his journals, and there's a few entries about that. I thought I'd read a little bit of that just to get a sense of what he'd written in his own journals.

He writes: (Reading) Usual meetings. Discussion of how to handle press who are off on a wild story built on unfounded story originating in Beirut that we bought hostage David Jacobsen's freedom with weapons to Iran. We've tried, no comment. I've proposed and our message will be we can't and won't answer any questions on the subject because to do so will endanger the lives of those we are trying to help.

November 24th. After meeting Attorney General Ed Meese and Don Regan, they told me of a smoking gun. On one of the arms shipments, the Iranians paid Israel a higher purchase price than we were getting. The Israelis put the difference in a secret bank account. Then our Colonel Oliver North gave the money to the Contras. This was a violation of the law against giving the Contras money without an authorization by Congress. North didn't tell me about this. Worst of all, John Poindexter found out about it and didn't tell me. This may call for resignations.

So, he doesn't say in his journals that he knew anything about it, and he faults people in his administration for knowing and not telling him. What do you come away with about Ronald Reagan's contributions to the Iran-Contra scandal and also, why that's not mentioned - like, the Iran-Contra scandal isn't usually included in, you know, the myth of the Reagan presidency.

Prof. BRINKLEY: First off, Regan's to blame for Iran-Contra as any commander-in-chief is because it was his passive management style that allowed these guys to do what they did. But Reagan also always operated above the fray, meaning he didn't purposefully know what people were doing. There's one moment in the diaries where Reagan tells people about getting the hostages out, which all Americans wanted. Nobody wanted to see our people held hostage. Reagan said, I don't care if you end up going to Levenworth Prison. I want those guys out. Now, that was the word of the boss. He did not micromanage how they did that, and of course, he never said break the law to do it, but it was a general comment. So people like Oliver North and Poindexter thought they were kind of following the boss's verdict, no matter what, get these guys out.

Now, to Reagan's credit, he refused to pardon any of these people. Many people thought when he left office he'd pardon. He refused to. He said it wouldn't be right to the American people. And also, quite famously, on March 4th of 1987, he went on television and said, I made a mistake. He just flat out used the word, I made a mistake with Iran-Contra, and then shortly after - that was March of '87 - by June he's giving the famous Berlin Brandenburg Gate tear-down-this-wall speech and was able to turn around his popularity. Iran-Contra represents the low-water mark of the Reagan administration because it shows the down side of his passive management style.

GROSS: I think when people talk about how everybody loved Reagan that there's a group of people who feel very left out of that, and that's liberals who felt that Reagan was very conservative, that Reagan did away with a lot of federal regulations of government, that he put people in charge of the environment who were, in the view of many liberals, anti-environmentalist. That Reagan - you know, a lot of liberals felt Reagan was shallow, that he was a good communicator but he didn't necessarily have a very deep grasp of his own policies. So, I guess I'm just interested in your take on that.

Prof. BRINKLEY: I would suggest that the left in America has turned Reagan into a bit of - what Clark Clifford, the Democrat, called that he's an amiable dunce. Well, he wasn't a dunce. We now have documentary evidence Reagan was a much more hands-on president then the liberals want to admit.

And so the left has to drop, I think, the cartoon image of Ronald Reagan and see him as Sean Wilentz, Princeton University historian, has recently done well in his book, "The Age Of Reagan," to see how he played the political crises of his day very astutely.

And we - you don't have to, if you're on the left, embrace Ronald Reagan. He was conservative. He didn't do things that liberals would want. But I think from the perspective of time, particularly after eight years of George W. Bush, some of Reagan's restraints have to be admired.

GROSS: You touched on this earlier, but I'd like you to elaborate on it. On election night, you said that with the election of Barack Obama the age of Reagan is over. So would you elaborate on that?

Prof. BRINKLEY: In Reagan's diaries he writes, I love FDR. Reagan says, I voted for Franklin Roosevelt four times and I - everything about the New Deal I like. What I'm trying to do is roll back the great society. When Johnson came in after the Kennedy assassination in '64, Johnson continued federal programs. Reagan was trying to turn back Johnson's great society, and that by doing so starting in '80, he controlled the political agenda in this country. Tax - you couldn't run for office, Democrat or Republican, if you didn't want a tax cut. Democrats were afraid to call themselves liberals because of what Reagan did to them.

Obama's changed all that. He's a progressive. And so you're seeing the energy of Reagan over. You saw it at the end of the Bush administration with the big bailout for the economy. The federal government is now back in vogue. The people are looking for the federal government, not the private sector, to solve problems. Hence, we are in now the beginning of a new progressive movement with the Obama election.

GROSS: As a presidential historian, what are some of the things you're looking for, watching out for in the early days of the Obama presidency?

Prof. BRINKLEY: My concern about Obama is that he may be surrounding himself with so many Bill Clinton people who tend to triangulate, who tend to want to operate from the center, and that's smart politics but it's not visionary leadership. If Theodore Roosevelt thought like that, we never would have had our - he never would have put aside 240 million acres saving our beautiful forests and parks and monuments. Roosevelt created U.S. fish and wildlife and bird reserves, and he had no - everybody was against him but he did it because he used the power of the bully pulpit and used executive orders to do what was right for America from a long-term perspective.

Obama does not want to get in a situation where everything he does is so watered down for political expediency that he loses his visionary side. There are things he must do because they're the right things to do for what America represents. When I say America, it's the America of the Constitution, of the Declaration, America that created national parks, it's the America of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and second inaugural. He needs to keep that vision of what this country is alive because otherwise you'll get mired in compromise. Yes, you might be able to win re-election, and yes, you might be able to do some things, but I think we're in a stage in our country now we need to do some big things well.

And it's going - there's pain involved with that. You can't be a leader without pain. The great Theodore Roosevelt used to say, you know, the point of leadership is to lead, not to triangulate. And so as much as we're - I think Obama needs to develop a consensus and try to work from a kind of unified front, I think he's got to do some big things quickly or else the inertia of middle-roading it will just overwhelm him.

GROSS: Douglas Brinkley, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University. He edited the book of Reagan's White House diaries. Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new CD by Jon Hassell who's known for his mix of ambient electronico, world fusion and minimalism. This is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
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Jon Hassell Brings World Fusion To 'The Moon'


Trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell has worked with a very diverse group of performers over the last 30 years, including the Kronos Quartet, Bono, Brian Eno and Biorke. Hassell's mixture of world fusion, ambient electronica and minimalism was shaped by his studies with Karlheinz Schtockhausen and Indian vocalist Pran Nath, as well as his association with new music composers Tim Riley and La Monte Young.

Hassell has a new album called, "Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street." Hassell begins his first American tour in 20 years tonight. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of his new CD.

MILO MILES: Jon Hassell calls his style of music fourth world. Everyone who talks about him mentions it. As with Ornette Coleman's theory of harmolodics, nobody knows quite what Hassell means. He may be the only permanent inhabitant of the fourth world, but that's enough.

Hassell creates numbers with no set foreground or background, at once static and constantly in motion with instrumental interactions and solos that sound transient, at best. This suggests it might be music without clear beginnings, end or location points, but it's not. There's plenty of distinctive, specific language in something like the title track from his new "Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street," which is taken from a line by the soupy poet, Rumi.

(Soundbite of title track music)

MILES: Hassell would seem to be grounded in classical minimalism or maybe jazz eclectic, but he's been embraced from early on by the experimental pop audience. Why? Well, pop has always been more open to scavengers and pick-up games, especially for players who have a sharp eye and unexpected moves.

Hassell first gained a wide audience in 1980 through his collaboration with Brian Eno, Fourth World, Volume One, Possible Musics. What is this thing, Eno fans wondered? And the answer is still not in, though the album has become a benchmark in the development of ambient music.

Likewise, Hassell's "Power Spot" from 1986 was a touchstone for electronica performers. And his "Dressing For Pleasure" in 1994 set the standard of modern jazz world fusion, particularly influential with younger European players. "Last Night The Moon" doesn't probe quite as deep as the earlier albums, but it features his most harmonious, long-standing group, Maarifa Street, and all of Hassell's trumpet tones, including his sly echoes of Miles Davis.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: For all his obstruce theorizing and articles and liner notes in his Web site, there's an earthy appeal that Hassell's montages that reminds me that he was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1937. You can take the trumpeter away from Beale Street but you can't entirely take Beale Street out of the trumpeter.

Somewhere in Hassell's clouds and shadow dances is some old-fashion soul sensibility. He enjoys being the cool cat you can't quite trace. Nobody fades in and out like Hassell. He's a particular master of the slow disappearance, as in this finale to "Light On Water."

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: That's Jon Hassell for you. Gets a little fuzzy around the edges, then almost translucent, and then he's gone. A man of mystery to the end.

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed Jon Hassell's new album, ""Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street." Hassell begins a seven-city tour tonight in Columbus, Ohio. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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