Imaginary Reagan

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.

Published in: on June 16, 2009 at 2:42 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. outlived his usefulness to the GOP? huh?
    I’m still seeing Reagan necrophilia continuing unabated, especially among neo-cons like Hannity and Gingrich (who JUST released a new Reagan-worship documentary “so that the young will know of his greatness.”)

  2. Well, I only know what I read in the papers.

    No less a luminary than Jeb Bush argued in May that it was time to move beyond the nostalgia — his thesis (I’m being polite, saying that a Bush brother could muster a thesis) was that the voters they most needed to hook (that is, younger people and particularly young Hispanics) don’t give a rat’s ass about Reagan. (Thus the Gingrich documentary.) Political wonks like Eric Cantor insist that Reagan is the way to the future, but I think the actual cooler heads are prevailing.

    Here’s the piece that talks about internal discussions about the viability of Reagan as a role model:

    As far as books go, this one’s a polemic (, but I think that Wilentz’s Age of Reagan is a pretty dang good book. It’s going to be hard to argue that Reagan is an unvarnished great guy (unless you have your head completely up your ass…which has always been a flaw in ideologues of a certain stripe).

  3. I hope cooler heads are prevailing, and that the GOP will reinvent itself into something less terrifying and openly fascist, but that may be wishful thinking given the lunatics that predominate in their party. Just last week I saw Hannity saying “we need a new Reagan.”

    Years ago, when Reagan still lived with Nancy and Tom DeLay controlled the House, I was watching CSPAN and some douchebag was demanding that the House pass his amendment to yank federal funding unless EVERY county in the U.S. named a federally-funded building (a post office, or a courthouse or something) after Ronald Reagan. Federal funding, under this new law, would be conditional on counties’ Reagan-naming, because, the Congressman claimed, mere recognition of The Great Leader would “reinvigorate the spirit of America.”

    This intensity of Reagan cult following finds no peer, except in North Korea where their founding “Great Leader,” Kim il-Sung is nearly deified. Reagan is their “Cult of Personality” and I’m not sure how fast that will fade.

    I know the virulently anti-monarchist founding fathers would be horrified.

    I am old enough to remember how much the Reagan era sucked. The deficit clock was mounted and went up millions every day, as the “fiscal conservatives” slashed tax rates for the top 0.009% or whatever and poured unprecedented sums into an absurd “arms race,” with a bankrupt USSR, launching new aircraft carriers best suited for war with Imperial Japan and tanks best suited to defeating the Panzer corps. For Republicans, spending billions on weapons that made sense when you were young (during WWII) is the pinnacle of the requisite manly “STRONG ON DEFENSE” policy. Meanwhile, the economic base needed to finance new fleets of tanks and ships was gutted: taxes on poor and middle income people went up and jobs went overseas in record numbers (the decade that killed American manufacturing). The displaced were seen on the streets, homeless, hopeless and drug addicted. When I think of the 80s, I think of Phil Collins’ song about homelessness on the radio “Another Day In Paradise,” my parents struggling to make ends meet, an insurance company trying to kill my brother, and hair-styles I thought were ill-advised even at the time.

    I’ve always been baffled when politicians harken back to the 80s as the Golden Age we need to emulate. I’m glad it’s OVER, though I am nostalgic about some of the music.

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