Reagan at Camp David. Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library.
Ronald Reagan & The WPA
(See Photos Below!)
Ronald Reagan is popularly remembered for lowering taxes, reducing regulations, and shrinking the size of government. This popular remembrance is not always supported by the facts, however. For example, see this article discussing tax increases that Reagan endorsed.
One would expect--based upon the current Reagan mythology--that Reagan would have been vehemently opposed to every aspect of Roosevelt's New Deal programs. In fact, he wasn't. Reagan was a democrat before he was a republican, and one could easily argue that he was a New Deal democrat. As for the WPA, Reagan remembered it fondly (and long after his transition to the republican party):
"Now, a lot of people remember it as boondoggles...raking leaves...Maybe in some places it was. Maybe in the big city machines or something. But I can take you to our town and show you things, like a river front that I used to hike through once that was a swamp and is now a beautiful park-like place built by WPA."
From: William E. Leuchtenburg, "In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to George W. Bush," Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983 (p. 214 of 2001 paperback edition), citing the transcript of an interview between Ronald Reagan and historian David McCullough, December 1, 1981, in conjunction with a Parade magazine article by David McCullough, "The Legacy: The President They Can't Forget," January 31, 1982, pp. 4-6.
Reagan not only reminisced about the good the WPA did, he also enjoyed the fruits of the WPA's labor. Reagan utilized Camp David as much, if not more, than any other president and, as you probably know, the WPA was heavily involved in the development of Camp David. Additionally, Reagan's name is attached to a large project of the New Deal era: "Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport" (previously named "Washington National Airport"). And in 2011, a statue of Reagan was placed at the airport. Yet, the airport was the result of "big government" action. Among the many federal agencies involved in its construction were the Public Works Administration and the WPA. Indeed, the airport was practically bullied past Congress by Roosevelt, which begs the question: Why isn't it named "Roosevelt National Airport"?
The information above conjures up all sorts of questions about the legacies of Ronald Reagan and the New Deal. He was seemingly in support of the New Deal, yet scolded many of its underlying principles. He spoke favorably of the WPA, yet many of his political followers today would be aghast at any attempt to create a new WPA for the long-term unemployed. His name and statue adorn an airport made possible by Roosevelt and the New Deal programs, yet many conservatives consider the New Deal a horrible development in American history. This seems to suggest a case of political inconsistency, to the extreme. But whatever the case may be, if Roosevelt and Reagan were okay with the WPA, then why can't we create a new WPA for today's 5-6 million long-term unemployed Americans?
The main sources I used for the above narrative were (1) the Reagan National Airport history web page, (2) the book "In the Shadow of FDR," by Dr. William E. Leuchtenburg, and (3) the Baltimore Sun article "Story of Two Airports, Potomac and Patapsco," by E.T. Baker, November 24, 1940, p. M2)
Above: Ronald Reagan relaxing and/or working at Camp David. Reagan utilized the WPA-created presidential retreat as much, or more, than any other president. Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library.
Above: This section of Reagan National Airport--Terminal A--has something of a New Deal look, but I'm not sure how much of it is original. According to the Reagan National Airport history web page, "In the future, Historic Terminal A will undergo a renovation project to restore the terminal to its 1941 design and architecture." Photo taken 2012.
Above: The Ronald Reagan statute at Reagan National Airport, erected in 2011. Photo taken 2012.
Content copyright . WPA Today. All rights reserved.