After last week's marathon coverage of former-President Ronald Reagan's death went from sublime to surreal, a little dose of reality is in order. Not to bash Reagan (it is tragic that his brain died at least 10 years before his body would admit it), but after reading a full-page elegy in the Wall Street Journal that practically deified the Gipper and looking at seven days of awe-struck headlines in the Albuquerque Journal, I was left to wonder: Where is the news media getting all this information about Reagan being one of the most popular presidents of the 20th century? Well, not from Gallup polling data.
In October 1988, two weeks before he became a lame duck, Reagan's approval rating was 51 percent. By the time he officially left office, several months later, his approval rating reached its peak at 63 percent. True, polls aren't the final arbiter in determining whether anyone was a "great president," but they certainly help to determine whether statements about popularity are true or not. And 63 percent isn't bad at all, but a look at the Gallup poll data for some of Reagan's peers reveals Bill Clinton was actually more popular when he left office with a 65 percent approval rating. An overall average of approval ratings during the last 10 presidencies (see chart below) put Reagan in the middle of the pack.
Ga-Ga for Little Green Men
Check out this bit of history from Sidney Blumenthal, writing in Salon.com: At his first meeting with new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1985, Reagan had perplexed him by talking about how they might work together if there were an invasion of aliens from outer space. Colin Powell, who became the national security advisor in 1987 after the Iran-Contra scandal decimated the National Security Council, later revealed that he and others had tried to contain Reagan's talk of ’little green men,' as Powell put it. Reagan had got his idea from the 1951 science fiction movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," in which an alien warns of Earth's apocalyptic destruction if nuclear weapons are not abolished.
At the October 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Reagan had agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons, to the consternation of his advisors, until Gorbachev insisted that testing for the Star Wars missile defense shield in outer space be suspended. Two of Reagan's utopian dreams collided. But after the exposure of the Iran-Contra scandal, Gorbachev furiously rewrote the script, dropping the objection to Star Wars. (Nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov told him it was a fantasy.) Instead, he crafted a practical arms reduction agreement, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty. Despite the opposition from ideological conservatives, Reagan seized upon the treaty. ...
In September 1987, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly: "I occasionally think how our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world." That December, Gorbachev came to the White House to sign the INF treaty. Reagan, through the succeeding months, kept musing, "What if all of us in the world discovered that we were threatened by a power from outer space, from another planet?" Then, in June 1988, Reagan, the arch-anticommunist, went to Moscow, where he declared that "of course" the Cold War was over and that his famous reference to the "evil empire" was from "another time."
A Worthy Epitaph
This one-liner from the Dallas Morning News pretty much covers it: "A buffoon to adversaries who preferred to focus on his Hollywood days as Bonzo the chimp's co-star, Reagan was a grandfatherly figure whose manner and charm invited voters of all stripes to give him and his party a chance."
In closing, it's absurd to think Ronald Reagan's face ought to be carved in Mount Rushmore and his mug cast onto a U.S. coin. But even more ridiculous is the idea that George W. Bush compares well to Reagan. In reality, all the Fox News brainwashing isn't going to supplant the fact that our current GOP president is no Gipper and never will be. While Reagan's style did make young, white Americans feel patriotic, Dubya's inarticulate, non-endearing and phony attempts at being presidential has had the opposite effect. Sorry.