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 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...
(The entire section is 2811 words.)