Transformational conservative? Constructing Ronald Reagan's presidential legacy, c.1984-1998
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date25/04/2024
Thomson, Sarah Margaret Grace
This thesis explores the construction of Ronald Reagan’s legacy during his years as President of the United States, and in the period immediately following his departure from office. As the first successful two-term president since Dwight Eisenhower, the Reagan administration had significant opportunities to influence how the public understood his legacy. Drawing on original archival research and oral history interviews, this thesis demonstrates that Ronald Reagan and his administration were actively seeking to influence his presidential legacy while he was still in the White House. Far from being content to allow historians to appraise his legacy, these actors carefully sought to shape public perceptions of Reagan through a variety of means. Beginning in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal, this thesis first outlines the evolution of this strategy, before exploring its implementation and assessing its successes. The first chapter of the thesis explores the strategy itself, and the following three chapters outline the various ways this strategy was implemented during Reagan’s presidency, in broadly chronological order. Doing so allows for a thorough analysis of these projects and their successes and failures. The final chapter uses three case studies of different legacy-building projects in the 1990s to examine how legacy building efforts continued and evolved once Reagan and his administration had left the White House, and how new organisations began to clash with the original legacy builders. My central argument is that the Reagan administration made a concerted effort to influence his presidential legacy, beginning while Reagan was still in office. What began as a short-term damage control exercise to rehabilitate a wounded president quickly evolved into a project aimed at shaping public perceptions of Reagan and ensuring a positive legacy for the outgoing president. I also argue that this project of legacy building did not stop when Reagan and his administration left office. Legacy building continued, albeit with different tools, well into the 1990s and beyond. If we accept that our perceptions of the past have been influenced by the conscious efforts of a group of concerned individuals, then we ought to have a clear understanding of what they sought to achieve and why. Doing so enhances our understanding of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the broader history of modern American conservatism, and Reagan’s ongoing status as a modern conservative icon.