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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

By Steven Taylor @ 7:59 am

I wrote this last week, but given that everyone was wrting on Reagan, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to publish it. So, that means an exclusive ePoliColumn (I can feel the excitement!).

Reagan and the American Mythos

In watching the coverage of the passing of Ronald Reagan from various news sources I have been struck with the eerie feeling that I have been transported to an alternative universe, like in the old Star Trek where Spock was evil and had a beard.

However, the tip off here wasn’t facial hair, but rather that the vast majority of reporters and analysts keep talking about the politics of the 1980s as though they were the Golden Age of Bipartisanship, and that they have always viewed President Reagan with nothing but affection.

Now, I remember the 1980s quite vividly and indeed started my formal study of politics towards the very end of Reagan’s administration. So not only had I been an active observer of the Reagan administration and mass media’s treatment thereof, but by majoring in political science in the mid-to-late 1980s it was rather difficult not to examine the politics of the 1980s with depth. I vividly recall partisan conflict over a wide range of issues. I recall Reagan being called an “amiable dunce” and his dismal by the political class as a senile B-move actor. Further, he was accused of being a fire breathing extremist who would surely start World War III, among other things.

As such it is clear that I must have been, at some point since the first Bush administration, shunted into a parallel universe where history was a tad different-where the press had a congenial relationship with Ronald Wilson Reagan and wherein Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party were regularly persuaded by the President that he knew best.

Given that I keep hearing about how well everyone got along in the good ol’ days of the 80s and how Reagan was such a nice man, the alternate universe theory is the only one I’ve got to explain what otherwise comes across as cognitive dissonance.

Or, perhaps, something else is going on.

I know that I can reject the alternative universe theory, because not all the commentaries concerning Reagan have been kind. There been a sufficient number of comments along the line of “Reagan was lucky-he was in the right place at the right time; his policies really weren’t the reason for the United States’ success in the 1980s” that I know that the fabric of the space-time continuum haven’t actually ruptured. More specifically, some commentators, such as syndicated columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall have trotted out the old canards that I remember so well from the 1980s: Reagan caused homelessnees, Reagan only helped the rich, Reagan is responsible for the AIDS epidemic, and so forth.

Those who remember the politics of the day will recall that Mr. Reagan was not universally viewed as a kind and genial man. Indeed, we might recall that then-Vice President George H. W. Bush spoke of a “kinder, gentler nation” in his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican Convention part of and how that phrase was interpreted as Bush’s way of differentiating himself from Reagan on issues like the environment, homelessness, education and the fact that government can be a positive force. In other words: the view was that Reagan was neither kind nor gentle in these, and other, areas. However, to hear the chattering class speak today, one would assume that every news story in the 1980s extolled Mr. Reagan’s kindness.

Now, all sarcasm about alternative universes aside, my real initial response to the Reagan coverage was a combination of annoyance and bemusement at the revisionism. While I hardly expected a frontal assault on a president who has just passed away, much of the commentary had a substantial strand of disingenuousness to it.

After reflection, however, a different interpretation has begun to form in my mind. Yes, there is some less than sincere commentary being proffered, and yes, some of the statements have been tainted by less-than-perfect memories. However, at a general level I think that something else more profound is taking place: Reagan has truly moved from simply an historical figure to the pantheon of American history.

By this I mean that Reagan’s public perception has slowly been moving from the level of divisive political figure to one of an exalted figure in American history-he has became a central player in the drama that is our political history. As such, stylized and overly-simplified views of his presidency and accomplishments are clearly being firmly ensconced in the public consciousness. And to call them idealized or simplified is not meant as a criticism. We do the same thing with such persons as the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These are figures whose accomplishments have been made part of the narrative of our national narrative and whose short-comings and failures have been diminished in our minds, while their successes have been greatly amplified.

The reaction to Reagan, by many of his former critics and especially the public writ large, signals this movement from former President to cherished character in American history. He is in the process of becoming, perhaps indeed, has already become, part of the American mythos.

Again, this is no slight, but rather a monumental compliment. Just as we overly-simply Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence. Despite the basic story of the document: in truth, Jefferson should not properly be considered the sole author, as the document came about from group discussions in the Continental Congress, not to mention the fact that much of the underlying theory in the document was taken directly from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. However, these facts do not diminish Jefferson in our eyes. Indeed, it is the importance of the actions in question that cause us to mythologize them. The messiness of reality often clouds the importance of a person and their actions.

I am not suggesting, by any means, that we forget the totality of history, or that pure and honest analysis should be discarded for the comfortable world of mythology. However, there is no doubt that a given event or person can occupy both spaces-and that idealized versions of historical events are an important way of conveying the fundamental truth and significance of history.

As I watch the events that have unfolded-and beyond simply kind commentary about a deceased president, I am convinced that what we are observing is more than just the celebration of the life and presidency of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, we are observing a secular beautification as he moves into a permanent position in our national consciousness and in our perception of our national story.

  • Outside the Beltway linked with PoliColumns
  • Cranial Cavity linked with Linkology 101 For The Week of 14 June '04

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