It turns out that GOP isn’t so sure that Gipper’s the one they should be turning to if they want to return to power any time soon. I submit that this is probably due to the plethora of good new biographies about Reagan’s life and administration.
It’s a historical rule of thumb that anything that happened less than twenty years ago is current events and not easily analyzed by the tools in the historian’s kit. The historian him or herself has been witness to the events, perhaps has strong personal biases, and in any case, will have difficulty obtaining unfettered access to the primary documents necessary to do a good job. In political matters, everyone jockeys for an angle as they try to win in the forums of the history books what they maybe could not elsewhere. Reagan was always self-mystifying and liked a good cheesy story — nothing could have been cheesier than the president who famously couldn’t recall winding up with Alzheimer’s. His critics would have looked mean-spirited to persist in their invective. Until he died, and for a few years thereafter, he could be wrapped in a protective but useful bubble. He was whatever a speaker wanted him to be. He accomplished whatever was instrumental to the speaker’s rhetoric. Need Reagan to singlehandedly end the Cold War? No sweat. Need an unproblematic hero that never cut back-door deals with shady characters? He was your man, direct from central casting.
Now, however, even the most sympathetic of his biographers has had to admit that he was more complicated, more disingenuous, more problematic a figure than he had been back when he could be anything that one wanted to project on that toothy grin and wavy dyed hair. His detractors (and they have evidence in their corner too) make it clear how petty, vicious, and oblivious to suffering he could be.
It doesn’t surprise me that he’s outlived his usefulness to the GOP. He was made of light and shadow. Once the sets have been struck and the script revealed to be contrivance, facts engulf him and historians finally will help drag him offstage.