02/04/2011 03:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Searching for Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was a man -- just a man -- and he was everything that was wonderful, terrible, and strange about American politics in our time. With the hundredth anniversary of his birth this week, more than the usual number of pundits and politicos are thrusting themselves onto that foggy battlefield where sits, like a Horcrux, the still-uncertain legacy of a president who was without question one of the most influential figures of the last century. There are few instances when the world provides a perfect metaphor, so we should be grateful for two books being released to mark the occasion: My Father at 100, by Reagan's biological son, Ron, a prominent liberal radio host and avowed atheist, and The New Reagan Revolution, by Reagan's adopted son, Michael, himself a radio host and political strategist for the Christian Right. Two books, and two memories for a nation to reconcile; the sunny father of modern conservatism, or the aloof architect of fiscal and social decay?

That Reagan has in recent years become the undisputed polestar of the American Right is itself curious. A former union head who rose to prominence as a Hollywood icon, Reagan the president never quite synced up with Reagan the brand. The same man who, in his first inaugural address, minted the conservative shibboleth of "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" would go on to oversee the tripling of the national debt from 900 billion to 2.8 trillion dollars. Campaigning on a promise to eliminate the Education and Energy Departments, Reagan instead created the Department of Veterans Affairs -- just one symptom of the dramatic increase in the size and scope of the federal government under his watch. Reagan raised corporate taxes by 120 billion dollars, hiked up gasoline taxes, and in 1982 signed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, still the largest tax increase in American history. He supported federal gun control laws, signed a bill granting amnesty to illegal immigrants, bailed out Social Security to the tune of 165 billion dollars, and proposed ridding the world of all nuclear weapons -- all positions which today could only be described as fitting squarely in the bailiwick of the Democratic Party.

It is nothing short of remarkable that the man who erected the GOP's big tent would come to be canonized by the very generation of Republicans who have all-too gleefully dismantled it in favor of a cramped, child-size ideological sleeping bag. Those 'Reagan Democrats' who, just thirty years ago, crossed the aisle in droves to help kindle Morning in America represent a phenomenon that simply could not happen today (can you even imagine a Gingrich, Palin, or Huckabee Democrat?). With seasoned GOP legislators well to the right of the Gipper succumbing regularly to Tea Party fratricide, no leader bearing Reagan's résumé could hope to find safe haven in the Republican Party these days. In a 1962 speech, Reagan famously proclaimed that he hadn't left the Democratic Party -- the party left him. What would he think, then, of the legion of self-baptized apostles presently purging in his name?

Reagan's two sons -- Michael the conservative and Ron the liberal -- stand in aptly for their father's complicated legacy. In the minds of today's GOP, Reagan's purebred right-wing persona has swallowed whole the mutt of his political decision-making; a frantic mythologization has, to this point, sacrificed Reagan the American leader so that Reagan the Republican leader might shine on. His tax hikes have been uprooted, and imagined tax cuts planted in their place by Michael's contingent have already begun their inevitable sprout into George Washington's cherry tree. Supply-side 'Reaganomics' has been chiseled into a sacred precept, while the unmistakable role of deregulation in precipitating our recent financial crisis has been inhumed by the conservative discourse alongside amnesty, the Brady Bill, and disarmament. At every turn, the emblems of Reaganism have been fossilized by the soft-focus lens of Republican nostalgia, all at the expense of a president who was nothing if not terrifically nuanced.

It is telling that Edmund Morris, the biographer hand-picked by Ronald and Nancy Reagan to chronicle the President's life, found in his subject an unmitigated host of complexities so irreconcilable as to prevent him from even attempting to complete his planned work. Morris' Dutch morphed from a scholarly effort into a bizarre faux-memoir replete with fictional characters and manufactured lore, and was received with baffled scorn by readers and historians alike (Morris admitted that even prior to publication he knew that Dutch "was going to cause burst blood vessels in academe"). It should be no wonder, however, that a figure such as Reagan could inspire fiction and only fiction, could be so difficult to pin down by scholars, scions, detractors, and devotees alike. He was no liberal, not by any means, but he was no thoroughbred conservative either, and in death he has remained every bit the inviting empty canvas that he was in life -- the man who won the Cold War or the 'amiable dunce,' a legacy of freedom or a legacy of contempt for the working class. Ultimately, it would seem that what each of us says about Reagan says more about us than it does about him; in the years that will follow Reagan at 100, we should not be surprised if he grows ever larger a vessel for our constructed memories and hopes about what America was, is, and will be.