Much to the chagrin of his many critics, Ronald Reagan has a special rapport with the American people. Despite domestic failures and diplomatic blunders, Reagan continues to be surprisingly popular for a lame-duck president whose policies have delivered far less than was promised. The 1987 Iran-Contra matter is a case in point. With the report of the Tower Commission, Reagan seemed doomed to emerge from this latest and greatest foreign policy affair as either a dissembling knave or a doddering old fool. After weeks of the subsequent congressional hearings, however, a third perspective began to take shape in the public mind. According to opinion polls, most Americans doubt that the President is telling the whole truth, but a majority still has confidence in him. That Reagan magic, the Teflon presidency, where does it come from? How does one explain it? More important, what does it mean? Writing before the Iranian-arms-for-hostages deal made the headlines, Garry Wills portrays Reagan as a sincere politician wonderfully in tune with an America that ignores the problems of the present and takes refuge in a fabricated past.
Wills is a brilliant interpreter of American political culture. Trained in the classics and experienced as a political journalist, he has written illuminating studies of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon. In fact, while focusing on such prominent political figures, Wills has really been dissecting those forces that have shaped the American character. In this intriguing analysis of Reagan and his America, Wills is looking beyond Reagan himself to what his presidency reveals about the people who have twice elected him to world leadership. Wills’s central thesis is that Reagan belongs to that “new class of political elite” which Jeane Kirkpatrick has identified as “symbol specialists.” Reacting largely to George McGovern’s campaign for the presidency in 1972, Kirkpatrick deplored the emergence of the “media politicians” who “manipulated ideas and words” and infected politics with unrealistic dreams and ideals. Her words were aimed at the Democratic left. Wills rightly points out, however, that the prime example from Kirkpatrick’s “nonproductive verbal political class” is her old friend Ronald Reagan, surely the most successful “symbolist specialist” of them all. Indeed, Reagan’s family background, his radio announcing, his acting career, and especially his work as the spokesman for General Electric all honed the skills of the Great Communicator.
Searching for formative experiences and lines of continuity, Wills moves constantly back and forth from Reagan’s past to the present. Born in 1911, Reagan grew up with the technological innovations of the twentieth century and is comfortable with them. His father Jack was a less-than-successful shoe salesman who loved to tell stories and enjoyed a friendly drink or two. Jack was a Catholic, but his wife Nelle converted to the abstemious Disciples of Christ in 1910 and reared her two sons in the Christian Church. Very active in church, Nelle wrote songs and plays and performed them for her congregation. Unlike his slightly older brother Neil, Ronald was a mother’s boy who sang her songs and acted in her plays. He grew up in a Disciples community, went to a Disciples college, and socialized with Disciples youth as an announcer in Davenport and Des Moines. In fact, his first circle of friends in Hollywood came from his denomination, several of whose members had moved to California at his urging. The Disciples taught that right was right and wrong was wrong and the individual should live accordingly. There was little room for moral ambiguity. Wills argues that the mature Reagan’s moralism and self-righteousness owe much to the Disciples. Whatever the source, Reagan has a profound sense of his own rectitude and finds it difficult to admit mistakes.
A conscientious young man, Reagan strove to...
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