Since I occasionally rant on this blog about Ronald Reagan and the general acceptance (even by our current president) that he was "great," I am heartened to learn of a new book, Tear This Myth Down, by Will Bunch. You can listen to Terry Gross's interview with him here, and then buy the book to help support NPR, which I would do if I wasn't so cheap. Anyway, Bunch's main point is this: during and especially after Reagan's presidency, the GOP frame factory went to work on building him up as a mythical figure. There is, in fact, an ongoing Reagan Legacy Project, and their methods are legion. For instance they continue to try to name as many buildings, hospitals, airports, etc. after Reagan as possible; the goal (though it has not yet been reached) is to have something named for him in every county in the US. You cannot drive down the Ronald Reagan Highway on a sunny day, as Bunch says, and not think, Wow, he must have been a great man--regardless of what you might remember, or what you might be too young to remember. His funeral was a critical moment in this process, planned with the legend specifically in mind.
The key reason for the mythmaking, Bunch points out, is to cover up for the fact that the Republican party has been out of ideas for some time. When asked about policy, they instead conjure Reagan and his golden aura, and everyone (the media) sighs and forgets what the question was in the first place. Witness, for instance, the Republican debates during the last election, Romney and McCain each trying to utter "Ronald Reagan" with more vibrato.
Naturally the legacy project dovetails with the current conservative mindset, which is authoritarian, always seeking a single, magical figure to worship. These guys often accuse liberals of "worshiping" Michael Moore, for instance, or Gloria Steinem, or Richard Dawkins, or some other bete noir of theirs. They also say we "worship" Obama. And the problem is not the worshiping, per se, but the falseness of our gods. But, to take the Obama example: no, we don't worship him; we like him. Some of us like him a whole lot, and most of us are just freaking relieved that he won. But the whole purpose of being liberal is not to subordinate yourself to any one authority. You examine, you compare. You gather from many sources, sift and weigh. Some of us even "worship" a god (although I don't), but I strongly suspect it's a very different kind of worship than the conservatives'. I'd think it would take forms like gratitude combined with questioning and--this is important--deep challenging. It would not be a substitute for hard thought.
Also, of course, Reagan was always already (thanks, Jacques D!) a myth in the making. His whole purpose in life was to mythologize himself--that was his way of serving his country and his party. In terms of his party, it worked, at least in the short term; but it deprived them of any need to challenge themselves morally or intellectually, so ultimately he hurt them. It was no accident that he was an actor. His most successful character was himself, and that character, like other fictions, knows no death.