Reagan's America

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2811

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.

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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 please his elders, whether in the family or in the church. As a lifeguard at a river beach, he became a local hero, saving many people from drowning. A campus leader at Eureka College, he majored in economics, played mediocre football, and enjoyed acting. After he was graduated in 1932, he took a job as a radio announcer in Davenport, working for the eccentric entrepreneur B. J. Palmer, owner of several radio stations and a school of chiropractic. Moving on to Palmer’s Des Moines station, Reagan became celebrated for his sportscasting. He was especially adept at announcing games from telegraph copy while pretending that he was really in Chicago at the stadium. He was not merely an announcer, but a sports journalist who did commentary. According to Wills, the young Reagan knew what the public wanted; he followed other sportswriters who thought nothing of embellishing the facts, presented sports as a metaphor for life, and drew moral lessons from this or that sporting event.

Reagan’s radio experience prepared him for his move to Hollywood in 1937. Under contract to Warner Bros., he was a natural in light comedy playing the handsome boy-next-door, the only role in which he truly excelled. His career was helped along by Louella Parsons, the influential gossip columnist, who came from Reagan’s hometown of Dixon, Illinois. Ever the dutiful son, he brought his parents to live in Burbank well before his future as an actor was assured. In fact, Reagan arrived in Hollywood at the right time. He personified the wholesome image producers were trying desperately to project. While loving motion pictures, Middle America distrusted those who made them, especially the Jews and foreigners who were said to dominate the industry. Reagan quickly became a Hollywood booster, bragging that no other city its size had so many churchgoers or so few divorces. In films, he loved playing the government agent battling criminals and subversives, and when World War II came along, he joined the army and made patriotic films to inspire both the troops abroad and folks at home.

After World War II, Reagan’s film career began to wane, and his marriage to Jane Wyman foundered. During the Red Scare of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, he became increasingly involved in the Screen Actors Guild, working furiously to disassociate it from the taint of Communism. An ideal spokesman for the guild, he served as its president longer than anyone else. His marriage to Nancy Davis restored his domestic tranquillity; his role as host for television’s “General Electric Theater” not only revived his career and finances but also prepared him for politics. As a spokesman for General Electric, Reagan perfected his presentation of what Wills labels “the American legend.” Its basic tenets were distilled in “the Speech” he regularly gave praising free enterprise, condemning government regulations and welfare programs, and warning of Communist perfidy at home and abroad. As early as 1964, Reagan attracted the attention of conservative politicians and their wealthy backers. Two years later, he took office as governor of California, the first step in his carefully planned campaign for the White House.

Wills spends less time than one would like on Reagan’s governorship and presidency. He is more concerned with the Reagan character than with political details, and he is arguing two significant points. One is that Reagan indeed represents a new breed of politician from that “nonproductive verbal class” Kirkpatrick so lamented. To be sure, there was more than a touch of Hollywood in Kennedy’s Camelot, but, with Reagan, Washington, D.C., has become Hollywood on the Potomac. The former actor has infused the presidency with theatrics, if not high drama. His every appearance, his eloquent speeches, and even Nancy’s admiring glances reflect their years as actors. Reagan has truly mastered the language of the American dream—and he has done so, Wills insists, because he genuinely believes in it.

The other point is that Reagan has trouble with the truth. He mixes fact with fantasy and twists the past to suit his purposes. Some of this is downright duplicity, but Wills is concerned with a skewed pattern of thinking that goes beyond calculated dissembling. Rather, Wills insists that Reagan has become the captive of “the Speech” and his own moralistic and patriotic views of the American past. The evidence is overwhelming. For example, despite what he repeatedly says, Reagan was never a liberal, though he did admire Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose New Deal provided much-needed work for father Jack and brother Neil during the Depression. Despite his many denials, Reagan was an FBI informant during the McCarthy era, having the code name T-10. Wills has the FBI files to prove it. Reagan likes to boast of being a “union man,” but he cooperated with Hollywood producers to blacklist fellow actors and to break a sister union, the Conference of Studio Unions.

Wills also looks closely at Reagan’s association with the Music Corporation of America (MCA), the talent agency that became the leading producer of television shows in Hollywood. As president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Reagan signed in 1952 a blanket waiver exempting MCA from SAG’s prohibition against agents also acting as producers. Because of the secret waiver, MCA took advantage of its direct access to talent and came to dominate television production throughout the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, reaping hundreds of millions of dollars. MCA represented Reagan before and after the 1952 waiver. The company also produced the “General Electric Theater,” arranged for Reagan to become its host, and finally, in 1959, made him a part-owner of the show. Taft Schreiber, an MCA executive, was instrumental in persuading Reagan to join the Republican Party, and people associated with the company largely underwrote Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign in 1966. In the early 1960’s, the Justice Department investigated the SAG waiver to MCA and called Reagan before a grand jury investigating antitrust violations. He could remember little but insisted, quite wrongly, that such waivers had been granted to numerous other companies. The Justice Department did not issue any criminal indictments, but it filed a civil suit against MCA for conspiracy in restraint of trade, and it named the Screen Actors Guild during the Reagan presidency as a coconspirator. MCA settled without a trial by divesting itself of its talent agency.

Reagan has portrayed the investigation of MCA as unwarranted government meddling. Rather than accuse him of anything worse, Wills simply says that Reagan was always sympathetic to the producers and thought that the waiver made great sense to all concerned, especially since MCA agreed to pay actors for television reruns. Never mind that it gave an unfair advantage to MCA and transgressed antitrust regulations. Wills also points out that Reagan is not a good administrator. Remarkably persuasive in articulating policy, he does not like coordinating its implementation. Although any chief executive is limited by his staff, Reagan is largely the captive of the people around him.

Whatever Reagan’s shortcomings as a manager, Wills finds him brilliantly intuitive as a politician. Appealing to both the pride and fears of the American people, he knows that they want to be reassured by their political leaders. Jimmy Carter never learned that lesson. Reagan also knows that they want simple answers to maddeningly complex problems. He does, too: hence his advocacy of supply-side economics, which has failed miserably to do what it was expected to do, and his Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars proposal, which most physicists agree would cost trillions and still not work well, if at all. Reagan’s foreign policy has also been simplistic. The Soviet Union is the “evil empire,” and the United States must constantly be on guard against the Communist menace. Nevertheless, Wills gives Reagan high marks for not translating his harsh Cold War rhetoric into an activist foreign policy. He points out that Reagan has done little in foreign policy, largely because he has had the good sense to recognize that he knows little about world affairs. The Grenada invasion hardly counts, and American intervention in Lebanon was such a disaster that it only intensified Reagan’s desire to avoid foreign entanglements. Wills gives Central America too little attention and, as noted above, had completed the book before the so-called Iranian initiative came to light.

If Wills is correct, Reagan’s solutions are not real solutions at all; he has not even assessed the problems correctly. Yet, Wills argues, Reagan is so thoroughly American in his perspective that many people are convinced he is right. His speeches evoke an American past that never was but one that many if not most Americans want to believe existed. They do not trust government and want its role limited—but they celebrate individualism. They believe that individualism settled the frontier, brought forth the Industrial Revolution, and made the United States the last best hope for freedom—but, as Wills points out, families and communities moved America westward, assisted in large measure by the government supplying cheap land for the settlers, loans for the railroads, tariff for business, and the army to destroy the Indians. By its very nature, industrialization was a collective enterprise of various organized groups and the government. Yet Reagan and his supporters are deeply imbued with the American legend that inspired his G.E. speech. They focus on the heroic individual, portray poverty, crime, and illegitimacy in terms of individual weakness, and talk as if the only positive role of government is defending against the evil Soviet empire.

According to Wills, Reagan’s popularity can in large part be attributed to the uncertainty that Americans feel because economic and technological changes have thoroughly undermined the way of life they thought they once possessed. They want affirmation and reassurance, and they get it from Reagan, “the demagogue as rabble-soother.” More than ever before, Americans depend upon one another, and their freedom and individualism are necessarily subordinated to the demands of a consumer-oriented society. The real culprit here, Wills reiterates, is capitalism, always the most disruptive of forces at work in America. Capitalism is anything but conservative. Its shifts and turns during the past century have transformed the United States from an agrarian republic into a postindustrial state. The automobile, urbanization, and mass production have undone the family and modified all social relations. The car, Wills asserts, did more than anything else, even more than the pill, to change the sexual mores of American youth, yet Americans want to believe that they can enjoy the material benefits of technology without being changed by them. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, whose technological contributions were instrumental in undermining the world they knew, labored to preserve an idealized version of the past that would provide guidance in the future. Reagan, Wills concludes, is doing the same thing.

For years the spokesman for General Electric, Reagan is thoroughly identified with the smiling face of technology and economic change. He could say and believe that “Progress is our most important product,” and also warn about declining traditional values without the contradiction becoming obvious. Indeed, during those years of giving “the Speech,” he always presented danger as coming from without, from world communism, either directly by aggression or indirectly through subversion. Government itself was a prime instrument of socialistic seduction because of social security and welfare programs. Like many Americans, Reagan does not want to confront social and economic problems; he chooses to ignore them, or else chalks them up to personal degeneracy that the individual alone should and must resolve.

Wills presents all this as a problem of history. Americans do not like to confront their past on realistic terms. If they did, it would do violence to their blindly optimistic view of who they are, what they have been, and what they will become. They are attracted to Reagan because he has the legitimacy of familiarity. He has been there, lived through most of the century, and can confidently tell them what they want to hear. It is indeed a simplistic, one-dimensional version of history that Reagan shares with his America. If Wills is right, Americans will ignore for as long as possible the plight of the homeless, the AIDS epidemic, the continued decline of industry, and the soaring deficits in both the federal budget and international trade. Reagan is there to reassure, to tell them that the economy will correct itself, that government needs to be only minimally involved, that the world they have lost is reviving and will somehow be restored in the future.

One may disagree with Wills here and there, but his research is solid, and his findings ring true. Reagan’s popularity cannot be explained in terms of his policies, virtually all of which have been singularly unsuccessful. Its sources must be sought in the mystique of Reagan the symbol, the Great Comforter in an age of unending change. Filled with visions of an idealized past, Reagan and his America refuse to come to grips with troubling reality. Reagan loyalists will resent such conclusions, but they are supported by too much evidence to be dismissed easily.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65

The Atlantic. CCLIX, March, 1987, p. 90.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, January 1, 1987, p. 51.

Library Journal. CXXII, February 1, 1987, p. 70.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 18, 1987, p. 1.

The Nation. CCXLIV, January 17, 1987, p. 52.

The National Review. XXXIX, February 27, 1987, p. 47.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, January 11, 1987, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXIII, February 23, 1987, p. 135.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, December 26, 1986, p. 51.

Time. CXXIX, January 26, 1987, p. 76.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, January 11, 1987, p. 5.

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