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Reagan's myth has grown over time

By Ed Hornick, CNN
  • Sunday marks the 100th birthday of the late President Ronald Reagan
  • Historians look back on his legacy and some of the political myths surrounding him
  • Douglas Brinkley: Today's GOP "created this fantasy role of Reagan as anti-government"
  • Lou Cannon: "His greatest single quality was his self-deprecating humor"

CNN will broadcast ceremonies from the Reagan ranch and his presidential library Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. ET.

Washington (CNN) -- As the late President Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday is observed, historians point out that his political successes, not his persona, have been mythologized over the years.

"Today's Republicans created this fantasy role of Reagan as anti-government," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. "He was really Reagan of government efficiency."

Brinkley, who edited the best-selling book "The Reagan Diaries," which is based on the 40th president's diary accounts, said Reagan mainly wanted to roll back the "excesses of the 'Great Society' domestically, not abolish them."

"He was never talking about doing away with Medicaid, Medicare, or abolishing HUD," he said. "It had more to do with trimming the federal budget."

Upon taking office, Reagan faced a severe recession and double-digit inflation. Gas station lines stretched for miles. Americans simply lost hope in their economic future, historians say.

Read more about Reagan's life and legacy

The former governor of California used his experiences in politics and his career in Hollywood -- first as an actor and later as president of the Screen Actors Guild -- to help change the American way of life.

But for all the praise by current conservatives for the economic turnaround during his presidency, historians also note that many conservatives of his day weren't exactly big fans of all of his policies, including his negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev over nuclear arms. At the time, many within his own party felt reaching out to the Soviets was a sign of willingness to negotiate with an evil dictator.

Ronald Reagan: In his own words

"What made Reagan different from many of his fellow conservatives -- and different, too, from liberals who looked upon the Cold War as an eternal condition -- was that he really wanted to negotiate and thought he had learned the art of doing so by bargaining with movie producers when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild," Lou Cannon, author of several books on Reagan, wrote in a commentary for AOL News.

Journalist Will Bunch, author of the book "Tear Down This Myth," pointed out in an interview with National Public Radio on Thursday that many forget that Reagan was divisive and had "virtually zero support from African-Americans."

"The Reagan myth is pretty simple," said Bunch, a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. "Basically, people want Ronald Reagan remembered as the man who won the Cold War and as the man who turned the economy around ... this idea that Reagan brought down the Berlin Wall and that he cut taxes and saved the American economy."

Read Bunch's commentary

He noted that conservatives also fail to mention that Reagan raised taxes throughout his presidency and was willing to work across the aisle with Democrats on major policies such as Social Security.

"When he had to govern, he was actually kind of a great compromiser. He was willing to make compromises to get things done. You almost never hear about the fact he reached a deal with Democrats on Social Security," Bunch said. "He signed off on some sort of tax increase every year of his presidency after 1982, including one that was at the time the largest tax increase in American history to undo the fact that the '81 tax cut went too far."

Brinkley said conservatives forget that he was actually influenced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat responsible for the "New Deal" big-government program; and by President Dwight Eisenhower, a moderate Republican who "showed huge senses of pragmatism and doing big American things well, like the interstate highway."

Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist and contributor, recently wrote that it wasn't only his ability to compromise to get a deal with Congress, but "but he never gave up on the things he truly believed in," including his economic philosophies. Rollins, it should be noted, served in Reagan's administration and managed both of his presidential campaigns.

Read William Bennett's commentary on Reagan's legacy

The praise for his economic policies, though, is somewhat inflated, Cannon argued.

"His greatest domestic accomplishment -- breaking the back of inflation that terrified the nation in the late 1970s -- was a product not of 'supply side' economics ballyhooed by conservatives, but of the drastic tightening of interest rates by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker," Cannon wrote. Volcker later became the chairman of President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

For all the criticism of the myths surrounding Reagan, his supporters point out his enormous success in restoring Americans' faith in their country through his personality, charm and effective speaking.

"His greatest single quality was his self-deprecating humor, which came naturally to him and was honed into an effective political weapon," said Cannon, who covered the Reagan White House for The Washington Post. "He made fun of his age, his work habits, his vanities, his ideology, his alleged lack of intelligence and his supposed domination by his wife [Nancy]."

Brinkley added: "Reagan had a healthy smelling-salts effect on the economy. Somehow, by talking about the power of the corporation again and why business was good for America, he was able to instill confidence in the market and also kind of do some things that were beneficial for America's trade policy. So it's not just a claim of this percentage or that percent but some of Reagan's leadership and tone and tenor."

That tone also reached the ears of Democrats frustrated by Jimmy Carter's presidency. A new band of "Reagan Democrats" sprang up -- something championed today by conservatives and Democrats looking to invoke Reagan as a guidepost for a successful presidency.

One of those Democrats appears to be Obama, who has praised Reagan and defended him against liberal critics. During Obama's December vacation in Hawaii, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs tweeted that the president was reading one of Cannon's Reagan biographies.

"No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan -- and I certainly had my share -- there is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America," Obama wrote in an op-ed for USA Today.

Observers argue that Obama is looking to Reagan to find out how to turn around a bad economy, reach out to the other side of the aisle and restore faith in the American spirit.

And Obama, like Reagan, has come under fire from Republicans for negotiating with the Russians on a new nuclear arms treaty reducing missiles in both countries.

"It was a precursor to other agreements, the most recent signed by Barack Obama, which made deeper reductions in nuclear arsenals," Rollins said. "Today, U.S. and Russian specialists inspect nuclear weapons on each other's soil, an action that would have been seen as unbelievably utopian when Reagan became president."