One of the first things Ronald Reagan did was restore glamor to the presidency after four years of Jimmy Carter's austerity. Historian William Leuchtenburg recounts,"With Reagan determined to restore the magisterial aura of the presidency, trumpeters once again sounded Hail to the Chief, and employees turned up for work at the White House not in sport shirts and blue jeans, but in jacket and tie."
That was symbolic of the style-over-substance theme that Leuchtenburg cites as Reagan's legacy. Not only a lack of substance, Leuchtenburg claims, but outright fantasy was a constant theme of the Reagan narrative. As Leuchtenburg writes, "Over the course of the next four years, Reagan spun one narrative after another that was palpably untrue.... Witnesses to his whoppers realized that Reagan was not lying but had persuaded himself of the validity of his tales."
Reagan convinced most Americans, too. As Leuchtenburg notes, "[Reagan's] fictions mattered little, though, for after a generation of assassination and scoundrelry the media decided - consciously or unconsciously - to feature his presidency as a success story and to brush aside inconvenient particulars. As a consequence, few Americans comprehended that the new president was not what he seemed to be. A man who identified himself with the nuclear family, he was America's first divorced president and was estranged from his children. An advocate of Christian values, he rarely could be found in a church pew on Sunday morning. He presented himself as someone who readily empathized with the working class, yet he hung out with super rich West Coast buddies and despised the less fortunate...With his ready grin and easy-going manner, Reagan gave the impression that he was a big hearted guy who loved nothing better than to mingle with the folks when, in fact, he was chillingly insular."
Worse, Leuchtenburg claims, "No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill-informed....To be sure his detractors sometimes exaggerated is ignorance." Still, "in all fields of public affairs - from diplomacy to the economy - the president stunned Washington policymakers by how little basic information he commanded."
Reagan sent to Congress a budget plan with seemingly conflicting aims early in 1981. As Leuchtenburg writes, "Reagan was asking Congress for an awful lot - a budget with controversial slashes in social spending, a far-reaching tax measure, and the greatest military authorization in the country's history - and it was not clear, more than eight weeks into his term as the month of March  drew toward a close, that he was going to get it. He had no experience in Washington, and his detached style of governing was not geared to the winning over skeptical legislators. Though the 1980 election had given the Republicans a majority in the Senate for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, Democrats still held most of the seats in the House, where Speaker [Tip] O'Neil and a sizable band of liberals were determined to kill the president's program."
And then came the assassination attempt.
But one of the myths is that it was sympathy toward Reagan after his survival of the assassination attempt that led Congress to pass his budget. Leuchtenburg says that does a disservice to Reagan. Much to everyone's surprise, Reagan proved incredibly adept at working Congress to get the votes needed. According to Leuchtenburg, "During his first hundred days, [Reagan] conferred 69 times with 467 congressman. In that short stretch, legislators said, they had been paid more attention than Carter had given them in all of his four years. On a single day in June, Reagan met with 239 [members], including 30 Democrats, at a White House breakfast."
When it was done, Leuchtenburg writes, "Reagan had rolled up an impressive record as a chief legislator - far better than that of Ford or Carter - and had won widespread popular approval for the way that he had performed.... Reagan never again achieved as much success in putting through his domestic program as he had in his first year."
That is about one of the only positive takes Leuchtenburg has on Reagan. For one thing, Leuchtenburg believes that the policies that emanated from Reagan's budget created misery. Leuchtenburg writes, "The country could not escape the presence of the homeless: 2.5 million Americans spending their days and nights on city sidewalks, under bridge girders, on subway grates, wherever they could find escape from rain, sleet, and snow." For another, he calls Reagan, "the very worst president on the environment that the country had ever known". Of the 378,000 toxic waste sites in the country that required cleaning, for example, Reagan's EPA got to only six - "and botched the operations on them."
Reagan's reconfiguring of the federal judiciary also draws Leuchtenubrg's attention, but, perhaps surprisingly, not his criticism. During his eight years, Leuchtenburg writes, "Reagan markedly altered the complexion of the federal judiciary by making the most appointments of any president in history: 78 to US circuit courts, 290 to US District Court." And despite liberal complaints, "he named a higher proportion of judges rated by the American Bar Association as 'well-qualified' or 'exceptionally-well-qualified' than had his predecessors from LBJ to Carter."
Reagan's second term - despite his overwhelming reelection - did not work out at all as he had hoped. And nothing, Leuchtenburg says, caused more damage than Iran-Contra. As for blame, Leuchtenberg makes a distinction between the two components: Of the arms sales to Iran he writes, "Inquiries by the Tower Commission and and a congressional committee exposed vividly Reagan's complicity in dispatching arms to Iran in order to ransom hostages." On the diversion of those funds to the Contras, however, Leuchtenburg says the evidence is murkier. As Leuchtenburg writes, "Evidence of Reagan's guilt in the diversion to the Contras of millions of dollars from the Iranian arms deal profits is less overwhelming. [Reagan's] operatives, though, had every reason to suppose they were carrying out his orders especially after he instructed [Oliver] North that he wanted him to do whatever it took to maintain the Contras 'body and soul'."
One of the great conundrums of Iran-Contra and the fallout on Reagan was how he survived. Leuchtenburg writes, "Though many analysts thought it [Iran-Contra] a worse transgression than Watergate, Reagan escaped Nixon's fate. The revelation of siphoning funds to the Contras had an odd affect. On top of news of the shipments to Iran, it should have worsened Reagan's [political] situation. Instead, when the inquiry focused on how much he knew about the diversion, it took attention away from his much more heinous offense: sending arms to an enemy. In addition, centrist Democrats had muddied the waters by approving funding for the Contras in order to show their conservative constituents in the 1986 campaign that they were not soft on communism. The Democratic leadership feared, too, that, if they succeeded in an impeachment effort [on Reagan], they would invite the accusation of losing two elections by large margins in 1972 and 1984 and regaining power not from the expression of popular will at polling booths but by summarily ousting both Republican presidents before they could complete their tenure."
Leuchtenburg cites timing, as well, as helping Reagan avoid Nixon's fate. Leuchtenburg writes, "Unlike Watergate [the break-in itself], which had taken place in Nixon's first term and peaked with most of his second term still left, the Iran-Contra investigation climaxed in the closing frame of Reagan's presidency. Democrats reasoned that Reagan could do little harm in the months left to him and that it was unwise to give their likely opponent in 1988, Vice President George Bush, the advantage of campaigning from the White House [now, as an incumbent president]. Important though these circumstances were, Reagan survived primarily because of the idiosyncratic attitude of the nation to his misdeeds. Pollsters found that though two-thirds of the American people thought Reagan was lying about his involvement in Iran-Contra, more than half gave him high marks for his performance as president. Even more curiously, he weathered the storm in good part because less than one-quarter of the American people believed he was in charge of the government he headed; hence, he could not be blamed."
Amazingly, Reagan left office with the highest public approval rating of any president since FDR. Historians, however, have had a different view. Leuchtenburg among them. He writes, "Historians, however, sharply disputed these highly favorable evaluations...Analysts scoffed at the notion that Reagan had created an economic miracle....Contrary to his pledges, Reagan did not lessen the tax burden, which was as great when he left office as when he began, but he did redistribute income - upward, with an eightfold increase in millionaires."
In foreign affairs, likewise, historians dispute much of the positive reviews Reagan has received in conservative circles. Leuchtenburg writes, "Historians...[have] punched holes in Reagan's record on foreign affairs. In particular, they skewered the concept that Reagan had brought about the disintegration of the Soviet Union by drawing it into an arms race it could not afford. In fact, they demonstrated, Russia had never tried to match the United States on Star Wars; it was spending no more for arms in 1986 than it had in 1980....Nor, they found, did evidence sustain the claim that Reagan had caused a turnaround in Soviet foreign policy, for the change of mind that led to the end of the Cold War had arisen largely from forces within the U.S.S.R.....In fact, Reagan's blustering, his military buildup, his obsession with Star Wars made it more difficult for [Mikhail] Gorbachev to overcome hard-liners in the Kremlin."
Perhaps most scathingly, Leuchtenburg criticized the entire executive structure Reagan imposed - one that he blames for Iran-Contra being allowed to happen in the first place. He writes, "...Reagan, knowing full well what he was doing, had fostered a rogue regime within the White House. Over many months of duplicity, he and they violated so many laws, showed such brazen contempt for Congress, and carried out such unconscionable obstruction of justice that the House and Senate would have been fully justified in impeaching the president and removing him from office, as well as jailing his confederates."
In one final area, however, Reagan gets good marks from Leuchtenburg - the presidency itself. As Leuchtenburg writes, "Above all, journalists and scholars agreed, the country, thanks to Reagan, no longer thought the office of the presidency imperiled.....One might object that the presidency had never been as endangered as the doomsayers alleged, but there was no denying that the mood of the 1980s was decidedly more buoyant than it had been....Americans' response to his eight years in the White House suggests that there is a lot more to being president than policy making and enforcement of statutes. He contributed nothing at all to the literature of statecraft, offered false reassurance of the sort peddled by patent medicine salesmen....Yet he also knew how to inspirit the nation."