By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Peter Bennet
All publicity is good, joked Brendan Behan, except an obituary. In this, as in so many things, Ronald Reagan proved a lucky exception. His death last Saturday put a merciful end to a decade of suffering from the cruel, delusional ravages of Alzheimer’s, an affliction no less heartbreaking for being appropriate to a man who famously declared, “Facts are stupid things.” From his rags-to-riches rise to his preposterous talk of killer trees, Reagan’s whole life blurred the real and the make-believe.
So did his passing. Always looking for the one big event to fixate on, the media immediately declared that the whole nation was united by mourning and began churning out a level of hagiography to abash the most devout flack at the Vatican. Speaking of the United States as if it were a monolith, the talking heads told us that Reagan had reunited America, restored our national greatness, made us feel good about ourselves again. And maybe he had — except, of course, for the 40-plus percent of the country who couldn’t believe this grinning dimwit had been elected their president.
The fawning was inescapable. Reagan’s gaga speechwriter Peggy Noonan did interview after interview, celebrating a gloriously imagined past like crazy Miss Havisham recalling her vanished fiancé. Time and Newsweek turned out issues with the identical cover image, a cheery 1976 photo of Reagan wearing a Stetson, denim shirt and relaxed smile — the effortless cowboy style that Dubya struggles to make seem natural. As ever, Fox News hit the sensitive note, accompanying a montage of the late president’s life with a haunting piano rendition of “Nobody Does It Better.” The death came on a Saturday afternoon, a tricky time for dailies whose Sunday papers have largely been put to bed. Evidently caught flat-footed, despite several weeks of rumors that Reagan was failing, The New York Times ran a long obit but little else. Not so the L.A. Times, which gave Reagan’s life a special 12-page section, which might have struck you as overkill if it hadn’t been 32 pages shorter than its pullout on the NBA finals.
When an ex-president dies, one doesn’t expect the mass media to raise indelicate questions — for instance, is it really true, as Connie Bruck claims in her book on Lew Wasserman, that Reagan used to go whoring with the Hollywood mobster Sidney Korshak? Then again, one doesn’t expect to wind up screaming, “Where’s the rest of him?” One waited in vain for someone to ask if the Nicaraguan people are better off since the Reagan administration violated federal law to save them from communism. (Answer: No way.) Surely, Cokie or Sam Donaldson should have challenged ABC’s George Will when he claimed that Reagan’s firing of 11,000 air traffic controllers was actually good for labor because it led to wealth creation (exactly whose wealth, George didn’t say) and anyway, if you fire workers then you can hire them. The nearest thing to skepticism came in a superb Freudian slip on Fox News Sunday by neocon William Kristol, who explained how Reagan changed the right: “He made it an American conservatism that believed in equality, that believed in hypocrisy [!], that believed in an American exceptionalism.” Finally, somebody was being fair and balanced, if only for a moment (in true Reaganesque fashion, the transcripts reflect Kristol’s intended word, “democracy”).
From the moment he took office in 1981, President Reagan was buried beneath more strata of mythology than Pompeii. The layers kept building after he left office; the right affixed his name to Washington, D.C.’s National Airport, mau-maued the gutless suits at CBS into yanking that Ron-and-Nancy TV movie, and threatened to bounce FDR off the dime and replace him with The Gipper. Even dutiful Nancy Reagan, always a wiser consigliere than most of his official advisers, thought that was going too far.
To be fair, it wasn’t only zealous supporters who created the Reagan Myth. It was history itself. He represented the intersection of two social transformations that dominated the second half of the 20th century.
The first was the emergence of the post-Goldwater right. Reagan was the ideal standard-bearer for such an ideological movement because he didn’t discover his conservatism intellectually — he lived it. He himself had voted for FDR four times, but then during the prosperous ’50s (which were especially prosperous for him), he turned against the New Deal programs that had kept his family afloat during the 1930s. He embraced the new conservatism’s most attractive ideas — mistrust of unfettered state power and faith in individual freedom — and put a smiling face on the ugliest.
Millions of voters had been drawn to the resentments expressed by Richard Nixon and George Wallace but were put off by the sneering, sweatiness and five o’clock shadow. Reagan robed these dark urgings in an upbeat glamour. Never one to seem nasty (why, the man famously liked jellybeans), he made the culture war respectable. It became okay to go after gays, unions, abortion-loving feminists, pointy-headed intellectuals or black “welfare queens” — so long as you stayed amiable.