Coolidgizing Reagan

I grew up in the 1950s in a union household where leftist thought was accepted as gospel. I recall three jokes/stories that I heard repeatedly at family events:

1.     ‘Did you know that the President takes two 2-week vacations each month? On the few remaining days, he plays golf.’ This was a not very subtle slap at Eisenhower’s supposed lack of attention to his presidential duties.

2.     My parents bragged that they taught me in 1948 to say ‘Phooey on Dewey’ whenever the name of the Republican Governor and Presidential candidate was mentioned on the radio. I was five years old at the time.

3.     ‘Do you know who was President before the 1929 Stock Market Crash? Neither do I. No one remembers his name or whether he did anything?

The first two barbs manifest at least a modicum of humor. But the third is a mean-spirited and blatantly dishonest characterization of Calvin Coolidge as an inconsequential and eminently forgettable occupant of the White House. Furthermore, it is indicative of a highly successful campaign to, on the one hand, obliterate Coolidge from the political memory of the American public and, on the other hand, guarantee that on the rare occasion when his presidency is considered, it is relegated to the dustbin of marginal, inept and failed presidencies. Eisenhower is still remembered warmly by the elderly – especially as the 50s were a time of prosperity for America. Two-time loser Dewey was an inconsequential national figure and so his banishment to oblivion is not inappropriate. But Coolidge presided over a time of unprecedented growth and prosperity in the United States. Moreover, his policies played a fundamental role in bringing about that success. That his memory should be marginalized is a great injustice perpetrated on the American people by the progressive movement that has been increasingly dominating the national conversation (with precious few exceptions) since Coolidge passed from the scene.

How have the progressives been so successful in erasing the memory of Calvin Coolidge from the national psyche? And are they having a commensurate level of success with Ronald Reagan – to which they surely aspire. The answer to the first question will be fairly straightforward. As many have observed, over the last century, the left has slowly but surely captured control of virtually all of the main opinion-molding organs of American society. The mainstream media, libraries, foundations, legal profession, educational establishment (including academia) and the arts are – with rare exception – completely dominated by leftist thought. With that kind of pervasive cultural control, the left has been able to generate a host of myths that are accepted as truth by substantial majorities of the American public. I will give some of the most prominent of the myths, but I will carefully separate them into three eras – the reason for which I will explain later.

Pre-1950s Myths.

·       The muckrakers and social reformers of the Progressive Era accurately highlighted the economic and social abuses inflicted upon the people of this nation by the Robber Barons of the Industrial Era. In so doing they justified the reigning in of America’s laissez-faire capitalistic system by a benign and enlightened federal government.

·       The Roaring Twenties represented a temporary resurgence of capitalists exploiting labor, which ended – as it was destined to – in an orgy of corporate greed that resulted in the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the ensuing Great Depression.

·       Harding and Coolidge were corrupt and their policies helped to bring on the calamity. Hoover continued those policies even after the onset of the Depression thereby making matters worse.

·       FDR and his New Deal saved the nation from economic and social ruin.

1950s-1980s Myths.

·       The 1950s resembled the 1920s in that the country slid back into some of its former discredited habits. Reactionaries fought futile rear guard battles to: preserve segregation and racial discrimination; deny women and minorities equal rights; retain antiquated sexual and social constraints on the people that were motivated by religious zealotry; maintain control of the economic life of the nation by corporate giants; and generally resist the progressive agenda whose implementation was clearly the wish of the majority of the American people.

·       The US engaged in a morally questionable Cold War with the Soviet Union that risked the annihilation of mankind. In pursuit of that conflict, America betrayed some of its fundamental ideals in its unwarranted and ultimately doomed intervention in Vietnam.

·       A historic and long overdue correction of some of America’s most profound flaws was engineered by an enlightened Supreme Court with such decisions as: Brown vs. Board of Education, Reynolds vs. Sims, Griswold vs. Connecticut, Miranda vs. Arizona and Row vs. Wade. The dramatic infringement of the people’s sovereignty by the federal government inherent in these and other SCOTUS decisions reflected a new understanding of our living Constitution – namely, that it does not provide a blank check of individual liberty; in fact, some limitation on same is a worthwhile sacrifice to be made in the pursuit of equality, fairness and social justice.

·       The stagflation of the 1970s, like the Depression, was caused by corporate greed and could be brought to heel only by further empowerment of the federal government.

Post 1980s Myths.

·       The notion of American exceptionalism is unjustified. America’s history of slavery and segregation, genocide against the Indians, internment of Japanese-American citizens, aggressive wars against Mexico and Spain, suppression of women’s rights and use of the atomic bomb in WWII reveal the country to be deeply flawed, and therefore not entitled to its claim of special status among the nations of the world. It is no more a ‘force for good’ than any other country.

·       Global warming is caused by humans pursuing excessive personal comforts at the expense of the Earth’s natural bounty. The US is the lead violator and must adjust its consumption habits in order to restore balance to the planet’s environment.

·       Islam poses no special threat to the US and Western Civilization. It is the youngest of the three great monotheistic religions and as such should be accorded the same gracious acceptance in our society as is afforded its two elders.

·       The economic malaise of the first decade of the 21st century culminating in the crash of 08 is, like its predecessors in the 30s and 70s, due to corporate greed. Had we not initiated previous palliatives like Social Security, Medicare, Fannie and Freddie and all the critical federal regulatory agencies that keep watch on our volatile economic system, things would be much worse. But the government should do MORE.

The explanation for the division of the myths into three distinct eras is that the level of public acceptance of them differs according to era. That assessment can be summed up in the arithmetic sequence: 90-60-30 in which each figure represents the percentage of the public that believes the myths of the corresponding era. Well, this is a bit overprecise and impossible to justify numerically. My point is that I believe the first set of myths is nearly universally accepted as received wisdom in the US; the second set is accepted unquestioningly by at least half, but perhaps not much more of the population; and the last set’s acceptance is restricted largely to hard core leftists and those completely under their sway. As evidence for this assertion, I would offer these points:

·       I assimilated the first set of myths by osmosis in school and from my family; I never encountered anyone for decades who thought otherwise. Throughout my life the status of these myths has not changed. Those who question them are viewed as members of the lunatic right. Virtually no one in the opinion-molding organs that I cited earlier questions any of it. Indeed, it is remarkable how widely they are accepted as self-evident in the same way that the Earth is round and life is finite. You have to look to ‘extremists’ like Limbaugh or Beck and other members of the ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ to find skeptics.

·       As for the intermediate set of myths, the collection of true believers is less universal. My experience is that my children and my students’ generation – those educated in the 70s and 80s – probably encountered them as gospel. But in the last generation, with the explosion in the number and variety of sources of information available to the public, it has become more difficult for the progressives – despite their continued strangle hold on the main opinion-molding organs of society – to program the thought of the citizenry.

·       Finally, why has the last set of myths hardened only in the hearts of the hardcore left? There are three obvious reasons. First, the myths are relatively recent and have not had time to seep through the porous membrane that protects the people from the left’s craziness. More seriously, the proliferation of alternate sources of information beside the main opinion-forming organs continues to accelerate. And finally, as implied, these myths are indeed far loonier than those in the previous two sets and so the public is less receptive.

Let us therefore answer the original two questions. First, it was very easy to marginalize and vaporize Coolidge because in the mid 20th century milieu, the first set of myths was almost universally accepted. Poor Calvin never had a chance. But it is much harder to do likewise to Reagan – although it is not for lack of trying.  What would the left’s kultursmog (to use Tyrrell’s favorite phrase) have you believe about Reagan? Simply that he was an amiable dunce who fell asleep at Cabinet meetings and was essentially senile in his second term; that his tax cuts and military build up caused the 80s deficits, not the profligate spending of the Democratic Congress; that his supply side economic philosophy was a ‘voodoo’ scheme to benefit the wealthy and not the engine that propelled America to 25 years of economic growth; and that Reagan did not win the Cold War – it was ended voluntarily by Gorbachev. So far, America is not buying it.

I sat in a schoolroom 25 years after Calvin Coolidge left office and absorbed all the false myths that doomed his legacy to oblivion. It is now nearly that long since Reagan left office. The progressives have had nowhere near the same success in marginalizing the Gipper. Maybe there is hope for the country after all.
This article also appeared in the online magazine The Land of the Free at