Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Rise of Reagan

Before he was elected to the presidency in 1980...

Before he made his first major bid for that office in 1976...

Before, indeed, he had finished serving half of his first term as governor of a major American state...

Before all of these things, the year was 1968, and Ronald Reagan was best known as a washed up former Hollywood star who had recently become a darling of the radical right.

While being beloved by hard-line conservatives is a surefire path to becoming a presidential favorite today, this was definitely not the case back when the Republican fringe turned to Reagan during the 1968 election. Only four years earlier, the party had gone with its heart and nominated Barry Goldwater, a man whose unabashed conservatism was so extreme that the nation rejected him by the greatest popular vote landslide in American history, both then and since. This caused a predictable reluctance on the part of the Grand Old Party to pursue the route of ideological puritanism again in 1968, a factor which worked to Reagan's disadvantage that year.

Why do I bring this up? Because today, in light of the deification that has occurred on behalf of Reagan from the media and from the apparatus of the right-wing propaganda machine, it is very difficult to find objective assessments of what factors really catapulted him to power. That is why I have decided to post a passages from a book about the 1968 presidential election called "An American Melodrama", one that was published only a year after the contest it covered. While hardly devoted to Reagan, it contains an in-depth analysis of the man and his movement, one made all the richer by the fact that it was written from three British reporters who had a fresh take on American politics and by its advantage in preceding Reagan's actual presidency by more than a decade.

Remember, what you are reading was written in 1969.

What sort of man is Ronald Reagan? And what sort of technique turned him from a disregarded neophyte governor into a conceivable Presidential candidate? Ronald Reagan’s qualifications for the highest office in the land seemed exiguous at best. He had capped a career as a film actor with a late, albeit spectacular, entry into politics – moving, in the fall of 1966, straight into the governorship of what is now the nation’s most populous state. By the time of the Republican convention in Miami, he had been in office little more than eighteen months and had incurred some powerful animosities in that time. A “Recall Reagan” petition drive was a conspicuous features of California politics 1968 – under California’s bizarre election laws the Governor can be forced to undergo another election if enough voters are prepared to request it in writing. This drive was to collapse on the eve of the convention, short of the 780,000 signature target, but no fewer than 440,000 Californians had appended their names to this curious document.

Such an indictment might be expected to take the gilt off any officeholder. But then Reagan is no ordinary political phenomenon. He is, as Goldwater was, a symbol of the old values of God, Home, and Country. His appeal is visceral. The most perceptive of Reagan’s biographers, Bill Boyarsky, said of him: “Reagan’s importance is not as an administrator but as an evangelist warning of the destruction of the American Dream.”

To those Americans who inhabit the Dream – the verdant suburbs – he is especially consoling. He is for lean government, low taxes, and flag-waving patriotism. He is against civil-rights legislation, university radicals, and expenditure of government funds in the ghetto. He is Goldwater mutton, dressed up as lamb. But the dressing is all-important. Goldwater, a man of considerable personal sweetness, was also something of a buffoon. People laughed at, not with, him. Reagan, on the other hand, is a wonderfully smooth performer. A dream candidate for those Republicans – and there were many – who thought that the policies in 1964 were right but that the personality was wrong. As a medium for the message, Ronnie was without peer...

The boldface, by the way, was added by me, as that passage is key to understanding both Reagan's personal coalition and the mentality of those who dominate the American right-wing today.

After discussing Reagan's beginnings as a New Deal liberal, the authors then provide an explanation for his conversion to the cause of conservatism, one which contains the single most brilliant insight I have ever encountered into the workings of his mind:

There are those who claim that Reagan's allegiance to the New Deal philosophy was insincere, that there had always been a right-wing conservative inside screaming for liberation. They cite his style - "always the Boy Scout" - his aversion to the income tax, and his readiness to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. But this is probably wisdom after the event. The explanation is simpler: that the real Reagan, like the celluloid Reagan, inhabits a world composed of "good guys" and "bad guys." Reagan, naturally, prefers to be a good guy. During the Depression and war years the Democrats had a firm hold on the good-guy image for a young man making his way. Then, after the war, everything became complicated. The ranks of the good guys were infiltrated with bad guys*; so the on-etime good guys felt like suckers, a very bad role in real or fantasy life. Reagan felt that he was made to play it briefly, and he did not like the action. He had no intellectual depth, no feeling for the complexity of human affairs. He simply wanted to know where the good guys were so that he could be one again.

* - The "bad guys" are the so-called Communists who were believed to have "infiltrated" Hollywood during the McCarthy Era.

While normally I like to wrap my articles up with a concluding statement, this time I feel my best bet is to allow the material to speak for itself.

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