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The cult of Reagan

By Seamus Heffernan
web posted August 13, 2001

Perhaps more than any politician of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan has achieved a level of fame that exceeds even typical celebrity. He has been immortalized with commemorative plates, busts, and calendars. His warm face beams from bookshelves as many writers have tried earnestly to capture his essence, or share their front-row experiences with him as real-life folks who were actually there during the Reagan revolution. Georgia congressman Bob Barr threatened to shut down Washington, D.C.'s National Airport because he felt that not enough people were acknowledging it as Ronald Reagan National Airport. There were even whispers of re-modelling Mt. Rushmore and cramming Reagan's likeness in between Jefferson and Roosevelt, and sugar-rushed Republicans are fighting to get something named in all fifty states after the 40th president. Nostalgic right-wingers everywhere are swooning over Reagan's wet-seal pompadour, his warm-and-toothy grin, his aw-shucks sensibility that seems to fill them with a genteel yearning for simpler times.

Reagan at his inauguration in 1981
Reagan at his inauguration in 1981

Listening to older conservatives talk about Reagan is like listening to your parents talk about the life in the good old days: "Oh sure, you've got Dubya and your big old tax cut and your newfangled Kyoto bashing, but in my day conservatives still had to secretly swap copies of National Review and we didn't get tax credit for sending money to Mike Milken's defense fund. Hell, if Ron hadn't Indian-rubbed Gorbie into quitting, we'd all be marching in Red Square at May Day and fighting for the best view of Lenin's tomb!"

Enough is enough. Ronald Reagan was a great leader and statesman, and probably the greatest U.S. president of the 20th century (get outta here, FDR). But where, exactly, is this fluttering of hearts and shortness of breath coming from? Why is Reagan's dance card so full when, say, Calvin Coolidge is stranded by the punch bowl?

Well, Silent Cal never got to look that good on television. Reagan was the Republican JFK when it came to on-screen charm and confidence. While a superb ad-libber, his most famous moments were his speeches: the USSR as an "evil empire," the Challenger address, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" His mastery of language and his sheer presence gave him a weight that could truly be described as presidential. More than that, he was genuinely likeable on television. He was able to walk the thin line between being comfortable and genuine on the screen, without coming off as slick or self-serving. As conservatives go, Ronald Reagan was a Tom Cruise in terms of star power-a Tom Cruise who would have voted for Barry Goldwater.

Ideologically, he set the conservative economic mantra for this century: Slash taxes, spend on your military, and do your damndest to shrink the government. Every Marxist nose-drip economics prof across the world mocked Reagan's simple approach, but it turns out he was right. Reagan so dramatically shaped our expectations of how a government encourages growth and wealth that even Bill Clinton was forced to run as the most economically conservative Democrat ever. Reagan stood up to the Keynesian drones and kicked them to the curb of Prosperity Blvd (They have since hitchhiked to Brussels, apparently).

Finally, Reagan has earned his place as one of the heroes of the Cold War. He was not alone, but what sets Reagan apart was his open contempt for communism. Reagan was a hard-line anti-Communist who could not respect or accept such complete, soul-crushing totalitarianism existing in the world. Reagan was not looking for a peaceful co-existence with the Soviets. He was seeking the end of their way of life. His consistent appeals for liberty, freedom and individualism marked him as its most visible foe. His commitment to aggressive policy that matched his words made him its most successful.

Ronald ReaganObviously, Reagan was swell. So why should we be wary of this urge to trumpet his greatness? Why shouldn't we enjoy having an honest-to-gosh cultural icon to look up to? Liberals get to have Lenin pins and Sierra Club T-shirts and Rosie O'Donnell, and we get stuck with Charlton Heston and maybe a tax shelter somewhere. Conservatives can be excused for looking for an object of their adulation, but Reagan's blind deification is a disservice to conservatism.

First of all, the reason most people become conservative or libertarian is that they are fed up with government, and more to the point, the people who run it. They see politicians as feckless sycophants who would smother Grandma with a pillow if it meant more pork for their constituents or a longer term in office. When they're not looking to guarantee themselves a little job security, politicians can be counted on being righteous busybodies that think telling people what to do is the best way to look smart or, worse, caring. Most right-wingers have figured out that a politician doesn't have to care to be effective. (Indeed, caring is pretty dangerous stuff for the average pol to engage in, since when a politician cares it usually means he's spending your money to do something about it.) Politician worship, then, is best left to people who think that government actually works, not conservatives.

Second, Reagan himself would be embarrassed at this unchecked fawning. His modesty is legendary. According to biographer Lee Edwards, his pursuit of the presidency came only when he was convinced that enough people wanted him to run. He was always quick to share credit and spared his staff and even his country the arrogance or conceit that have plagued certain recent former presidents. His knack of being the Everyman was effortless and genuine, and he felt a deep sense of servitude, not entitlement, to the American people. Reagan was confident of his place in history; he did not need his face on a beer coaster to confirm it.

Finally, all of this hero worship is keeping conservatives in the past when they should be preparing for future battles. Unlike Reagan, the current president was not a landslide victor (although, to be fair, he did not enjoy the chance to run against Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale). While slightly-greying supply-siders are still getting all moon-eyed over ol' Ron, young right-wingers are still scrambling to take back the ideological high ground cornered by the left for the past eight years. There may not be that many people who still think Al Gore won the election over George W. Bush, but those who do have an awful lot of influence, since they all work at CNN and The New York Times. It is time to go back on the attack, build for another great conservative era, and stop living in a past one. ESR

This is Seamus Heffernan's first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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