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.
Aside from the rare snappish outburst, Reagan did. He embodied one of the most prized of American virtues, unflagging good humor — he even made wisecracks when he was shot. Such personal affability was often mistaken for public benevolence. In one of its slavish tribute articles, Time hailed Reagan for producing “a conservatism without social intolerance.” This would come as news to the many thousands who died from AIDS in the ’80s — he couldn’t bring himself to mention the epidemic by name for nearly six years — or to African-Americans who knew they were in hot water from the moment Reagan pointedly began his 1980 campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three white civil rights workers had been famously murdered only 16 years earlier.
He could pull this off because his years on radio, in movies and as a TV pitchman had made him the perfect avatar of a second huge social change: the marriage of politics and entertainment. Although Reagan’s show business roots prompted disdain among the liberal elite — whose sense of intellectual superiority didn’t stop them getting steamrolled — his show-biz populism actually represented the future. His presidency was about controlling — indeed, manufacturing — images.
This was hardly surprising. Reagan is the only president who’s been a true child of pop culture — at once a performer and avid consumer. Pop shaped his consciousness whether he was quoting Dirty Harry’s “Make my day,” evoking Star Wars or entering into one of those Philip K. Dick–style alternative realities in which he claimed to have done things he’d actually only seen in movies — like helping open World War II concentration camps. Fittingly, perhaps, American popular culture orbited him as no other president. In the 1980s, seemingly everything reflected the pull of his presidency, be it Indiana Jones’ breezy retro-heroism, Rambo’s desire to refight Vietnam or Roseanne’s hilariously angry blue-collar riposte to The Gipper’s talk about America as a “shining city on a hill.”
Nothing captured the psychological underpinnings of the Reagan years more acutely than the ironic happy ending of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Diabolical Dennis Hopper has been defeated, order has been restored to the small, quintessentially American city of Lumberton, and as Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern look on delightedly, a robin perches outside the window of a safe, happy home. Only the robin is mechanical, not alive. To believe in it — and Reagan-fan Lynch did believe — you must forget all the noirish nightmares you’ve seen earlier and place your faith in the reality of the fake robin.
The same was true of Reaganism. It required boundless denial and an equally capacious gift for wishful thinking. The Gipper was brilliant at inducing both, not least because his whole life had been built around those twin pillars. The good-natured son of a drunken, itinerant salesman, he had mastered the fine psychological art of blocking out things he didn’t like to think about. During the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan first denied that his administration had exchanged arms for hostages. Months later, he retracted that statement with the memorable words, “My heart and best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” (“Very believable,” Tim Russert purred fatuously, after playing this clip on Meet the Press.)
This was not a man to fret about the chasm separating his fantasies from reality. Incurious about the outside world (he had people for that) and far from introspective, he achieved the sublime hollowness one often finds in movie stars, a burnished charm that was almost hermetic. Reagan’s hand-picked biographer Edmund Morris famously wondered if Ronnie had any inner life — his loony book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan eventually resorted to fictionalization — and even the president’s family was struck by his cool remoteness. Young Ron Reagan once said he doubted that his father ever thought about anyone, not even his children, when they weren’t present in the room.
Although such a capacity for denial borders on the pathological, Reagan’s lifelong flight from introspection offered relief to millions who rebelled against the soul-searching induced by assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate and the bummer presidency of born-again Jimmy Carter, who projected his own dismal sense of Original Sin onto the whole country. Untouched by a sense of sin, his own or America’s, Reagan offered the electorate the absolution of optimism, national greatness, Morning in America, forgetting. As Murray Kempton wrote of his presidency, “For touching a people who wants to forget ugly problems, no politician equals the one who has already forgotten them himself.”
As one who voted against Reagan twice, I could never believe that people swallowed his bromides (however heartfelt) or chuckled at those corny, scripted one-liners. I kept waiting for The Wizard of Oz moment when he was finally found out. But while Toto pulled back the curtain again and again, most Americans didn’t mind that he got caught making things up. They didn’t expect him to be a details guy.
Naturally, in the current eulogistic frenzy, such cavalier disregard for the stupid facts has been elevated into a form of higher wisdom. On 60 Minutes, Dan Rather remarked that “the literal-minded” might quarrel with Reagan’s habit of making up facts and stories, yet his gifts as a mythologizer let Americans feel better about themselves. Well, sure. But it’s worth noting that tolerance of Reagan’s reckless approach to truth paved the way for the dishonesty of the far less endearing George W. Bush.
In his new book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank asks why working-class Americans routinely vote for culturally conservative Republicans and against their own economic interests. It was Reagan who made such votes routine. Cannier than many left-wing intellectuals, he intuitively grasped that people usually vote less for purely rational, material reasons than out of the kind of fears, hopes, dreams and fantasies that many leftists find foolish or reprehensible. As the French philosopher Raymond Aron put it in the mid-1950s, back when Reagan was still a TV pitchman, “It is a denial of the experience of our century to suppose that men will sacrifice their passions to their interests.” Reagan knew this in his bones, and he stirred up visceral passions — wrapping himself in the flag, playing to the yearning for a return to “traditional” values, celebrating the American Dream of hitting it big. “What I want above all,” he once said, “is that this remains a country where someone can always get rich.”
When Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, he radically recast our political iconography, creating a political framework in which the right gets to stand for optimism and fun — it urges you to buy that SUV — while liberals are stuck being defeatist and practical — it scolds you about bad gas mileage. The great exception to this was Bill Clinton, who used the Reagan playbook to become statistically more popular than Reagan himself. No matter. In the grand panorama of history, Reagan is the giant — our most important president since FDR. He tugged our entire political system so far to the right that Richard Nixon now looks like a socialist. Clinton may have been a crack politician, but caught within a post-Reagan political universe, he largely did The Gipper’s unfinished business — balancing the budget, declaring an end to the era of big government, even funding Star Wars missile defense. Where The Man from Hope left precious little legacy beyond a talented wife, we’re still living with the people Reagan put at the center of our national life — all those Gingriches, Santorums, Ashcrofts and DeLays.
Although George H.W. Bush followed Reagan into the Oval Office, George W. Bush is his true successor. He pushes the irresponsible conservative agenda that The Gipper stood for all along, only without the same good grace or pragmatism. Twenty years ago, I never thought I’d live to see the day when I’d feel even a moment’s nostalgia for Reagan and his doltish presidency. Thanks to churlish Dubya, I now do. But only a flickering moment. Then all the stupid facts and unpleasant memories start washing over me, and I recall what it actually felt like to live through the Reagan Years.