The Digital Journalist
Another Look at Ronald Reagan: His Image and Legacy
July 2004

by Patrick Cox, Ph.D.

The tributes to President Ronald Reagan in recent weeks flowed throughout the media as if a sentimental flood of emotions swept over their holding banks and inundated the nation. For more than a week, Americans witnessed tributes, praise and anecdotes to the late president - whose image appeared on television, the Internet and in the print media. In the wake of this ordeal, the media relied to a large degree on the images supplied by photographers. These photographs provide a visual account of Reagan and his presidency, but are only a part of the story. Historians will continue to have difficulties in assessing the Reagan presidency independently of the image he so carefully developed and maintained.

Media coverage of Ronald Reagan during his funeral was like a family gathering looking back at the collective photo album. As with most families, their photographs are filled with scenes of important events and ceremonies - birthdays, graduations, Christmas, picnics, vacations, sunsets, mountains, beaches, pets, friends and other family members. These photos remind us of the happy, peaceful times. Stories emanated from these selected vignettes. Very few family albums contain images of strife, conflict and dissention. Nor do they reflect times of loneliness, grief and depression. It's in our nature to have fond, pleasant memories of the past.

Diana Walker, who covered the Reagan White House for many years, provided insight that reflected the views of many of the professional photographers who worked with the Reagans. She said, "I saw an amazing eight years, presented to the press in a skillful and sophisticated way, by consummate pros in the Reagan White House. But what overwhelms me, really, is the remembrance of a pair who so obviously loved each other, relied on each other, who exuded enormous style; a president who believed in and continued to articulate a few things strongly, with an air of uncomplicated, sometimes disturbing, simplicity, dominated by grace, humor, charm, and pride."

From photographers to political commentators, Reagan created an atmosphere of charm, sophistication and simplicity. When compared to his recent predecessors, only John Kennedy ranked in the same class with Reagan. But the truth lies both in front of the camera and behind the captured images. Some of the photos support a fictional, imaginary world in which no hard choices or controversial decisions were made. As Mark Twain said, "Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense." So among all the rhetoric and visual images of Ronald Reagan, how does one begin to make sense of the man and his administration?

To begin, one should take into account descriptions from the participants, supporters and critics of Reagan and his administration. Walker described some of her memories of the Reagan family. "What I saw in my mind's eye as I remembered Reagan was not an ideology, but a simple, charming, straightforward and, yes, clever man who knew how to disagree without rancor. From Tip O'Neill to Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan knew that together - with either Irish humor or an innate sense of the goodness of the working man - all could and would work out. Those years were a time when a president could make us feel strong and united by his example. "

Critics, such as author and columnist William Rivers Pitt, stated that during the Reagan funeral the media and the population overlooked, or purposely ignored, the more controversial episodes of the Reagan administration. By virtue of his media skills and pleasant personality, Pitt noted, Reagan was able to "sell to the American people a flood of poisonous policies. He made Americans feel good about acting against their own best interests."

Pitt and other Reagan critics point to a host of policies and problems stemming from the 1980s that escaped the camera lens and the collective memories of most Americans. The Iran-Contra scandal; support for military dictatorships, including Saddam Hussein in Iraq; aid to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan; and the massive savings and loan scandals are black marks on the Reagan ledger. As Pitt stated, "It isn't the lies that kill us, but the myths, and Ronald Reagan was the greatest myth-maker we are ever likely to see."

Critics and proponents debate the merits of the Reagan administration, but a panoramic picture of the presidency should examine historic trends and precedents. Reagan presided during an era of political realignment, especially in the once-solidly Democratic South. As noted political commentators Earl Black and Merle Black stated in "The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected," "The transformation of the South from a sturdy Democratic base into a prominent Republican stronghold has shaken the foundations of modern presidential politics." The primary reason for this change centered on the reaction of traditional Southern white Democrats to civil rights and an abrupt departure from the days of a racially segregated way of life. Reagan's goals of smaller government, lower taxes and private enterprise fell on fertile ground in the South and the rest of the nation.

After the aggressive civil rights movement during the Great Society and the 1960s, Republicans discovered they could win the presidency with only a small minority, as little as 33 percent, of Northern electoral votes. "By understanding and fully exploiting the dynamics of Southern politics, the Republicans have thus far succeeded in building and rebuilding the large white majorities necessary to carry the South. Southern victories have in turn given Republican presidential candidates a vital hedge against possible Northern defeats," the authors stated.

The transition effectively began with Richard Nixon's successful 1968 campaign for the presidency. But Nixon's resignation and his support for expanding some Great Society programs still brings criticism from Republican stalwarts. Historians and most Americans of all political persuasions view Nixon and his presidency as tainted and controversial. Ultimately, Ronald Reagan would be the beneficiary of Nixon's downfall. And he would utilize the Nixon political strategy, combined with his own conservative agenda and public relations skill, to become the premier GOP leader of the century. The photographs of police dogs attacking peaceful civil-rights protestors portrayed the ugly side of American racism. Few images come to mind to better describe the wholesale change in the American electorate.

In the years to come, we will see much more discussion about Ronald Reagan, his influence and his legacy. Critics and admirers will make their points and the scales will move up and down as the years pass. Most historians prefer to wait decades, sometimes generations, to provide a full assessment of presidential administrations. In reality, this is an ongoing process, as we still debate the impact of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts and both Johnsons - and even more. Reagan left his mark in many ways - his style and image, his controversial policies and programs, and his accomplishments. Reagan certainly set the standard for the current Republican president and for succeeding Republican presidents. His style, his conservative stands on government and tax policy, and his support for smaller government are now gospel among Republicans and many Americans.

For the foreseeable future, the domestic agenda embodied and defined by the 20th-century presidencies of Roosevelt, Johnson and Reagan will continue to be a subject of revision and debate. In his recent book, "Grand Old Party," presidential historian Lewis Gould described Reagan as the "embodiment of GOP virtues and conservative ideals." When compared to other modern presidents, only Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy could have exceeded Reagan's campaign and media skills. Reagan's command of the agenda and the media faded in his second term as scandals erupted and questions arose over the president's oversight of his own administration. However, in the modern age of communication, Reagan certainly mastered all forms of the media with an organization and consistency that surpassed the Kennedy administration.

Dirck Halstead took one of the last photographs as Reagan left the White House. Reagan opened the door to the Oval Office and took one last, long gaze into the historic center of the executive branch of government. He paused as if looking back, trying to visualize all of the events and impact he had made during his eight years in office. Historians and many others will be looking back for years to come as they continue to assess the Reagan presidency.

© Patrick Cox, Ph.D.
Assistant Director
Center for American History
The University of Texas at Austin