Friday, February 26, 2010

Reagan's Conservative Credentials

The debate over whether Reagan can really represent today's conservative movement scratches on. Will Bunch's efforts to provide liberals with, if not claims on Reagan's image, antidotes to its conservative representation, have had some effect. Here, a Florida journalist restates the case, prompting a native veteran of the adminsitration to write in with a grouchy rebuttal.

More curiously, Glenn Beck has adopted the idea. In a USA Today interview, Beck claimed: "I’ve always said I was a Reagan-style conservative. But I don’t think Reagan was a real Republican. He just maintained some shared values." That Beck is willing to use the image while remaining sceptical of it makes me like him a little more, strangely.

David Jenkins at the Frum Forum picked up on this, but responded more to Beck's rejection of Teddy Roosevelt at CPAC this month. This is the plot thickening, as a moderate conservative attacks the Tea Party hero for excluding Reagan from the movement. Jenkins is vice-president of Repulicans for Environmental Protection, and in a letter to the Washington Post made one of the most interesting contributions to the debate so far - that Reagan saved the ozone layer.

Today, our ozone layer is healing because Reagan took prudent and decisive action to address the threat based on the best available science at the time. He did not wring his hands and wait for evidential certainty that might have come too late. Reagan understood that to be a true conservative, you also have to be a good steward -- a fact that those who claim to be emulating him today seem to have forgotten.

It is a portrait that chimes with Reagan's commitment to SDI - a faith in the reality of future threats, and an attitude to science that combined blithe confidence with a lack of interest in "evidential certainty".

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Newt and Shirley

The American Spectator announces that Craig Shirley is to write the authorised biography of Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich is best known for his science-fiction writing, but has also in recent years got into the movie business. He and his wife run Gingrich Productions, which rides the wave of conservative film-making that began about five years ago in reaction to Michael Moore. They have their own festivals and everything. The Gingrichs have produced and hosted Rediscovering God in America (parts I and II), Nine Days That Changed the World (about John Paul II's visit to Poland) and Rendezvous with Destiny about the life and presidency of Ronald Reagan. On top of this, Gingrich has pretty much confirmed a 2012 presidential run. A campaign biography is on the cards, then, and Shirley seems a sensible choice.

Craig Shirley is the author of Reagan's Revolution (2004), about the 1976 campaign, and has more recently written on the 1980 campaign in Rendezvous with Destiny, which should be worth a read if only for its first use (I think) of the newly opened campaign papers at the Reagan Library. So Shirley and Gingrich share a fondness (for Shirley's books are very fond) for Reagan, and also for unimaginative titles. Each also has a long history with the Republican party - Shirley at least as far back as 1984, when he campaigned for Reagan. He now runs a public relations firm and writes shallow and snarky editorials about why Obama is no Reagan (because Reagan appealed to the common-sense citizenry rather than the "wisenheimers of Washington": D.C's elite lobbyists, pundits and PR men. Please read the services which Shirley & Banister Public Affairs provide).

Gingrich's energetic life and career could make an interesting story, though his straight transition from academia to Congress might not fit the traditional presidential story of hardship, self-education, enterprise and outsider credentials. Gingrich, though, has faith in biography, and its practical, inspirational purpose:

"I don't care what you want to be. If you want to get rich, read the biographies of people who got rich. If you want to be a famous entertainer, read the biographies of people who got to be famous entertainers." - Taken from Joan Didion's fantastic study of weird, 'Newt Gingrich, Superstar' (1995)

I'm not sure if I want to be Newt Gingrich, but watch this space.

The Kennedys vs. The Reagans

In 2003, conservative activists got hold of the script for CBS' mini-series The Reagans, and through an aggressive public campaign, with the support of some members of the family, managed to get the show re-edited and moved from its primetime network slot to be broadcast more quietly on Showtime. A new campaign has learned from this and gone further, getting the jump on the History Channel's commissioning of a series about the Kennedys before the script is finished or a single scene is shot.

The anti-Reagans, pro-Reagan campaign was led by Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center, whose thoughts can be found here.

Half of our dismay at this messy crossroads of entertainment and propaganda should be directed at Hollywood, which should be greeted with a shaker of salt every time a movie is "Based On a True Story." The other half should be directed at history-challenged Americans, those who could watch hysterical "history" films like Oliver Stone's "JFK" and actually swallow the nonsense. To those Americans who get their history from the movies (and their news from the late-night comedians), we can only plead: Read a book, or a newspaper, or else please don't bother to vote.

Bozell's equivalent in the campaign against the History Channel is Robert Greenwald, who as the maker of Outfoxed, a political propaganda documentary about political propaganda, is always alert to political propaganda. Like Bozell, Greenwald is concerned about the political identity of the film-makers in question, in this instance, the producer Joel Surnow of 24 fame. Surnow's conservatism casts a sinister light on the innaccuracies, inventions and flawed characters that appear in the draft script. Greenwald has enlisted several historians, and Ted Sorensen, in a video here, urging a boycott of the History Channel.

That this is a project of the History Channel, rather than a channel more traditionally associated with drama, seems to be the strongest argument, and gives the campaign the weight of intellectual principle. Otherwise, the two campaigns seem to have few differences - self-appointed watchdogs of America's media consumption interfering politically with representations of protected presidential symbols.

My only hope is that the Kennedy film is less painstakingly dull as The Reagans; it will certainly have more sleaze in it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Satan vs. Reagan

Contra Costa County supervisors vote today on whether to change the name of Mount Diablo to Mount Reagan, as requested by a local concerned with devilish connotations. It seems unlikely, given the strength of public opinion against the idea, and the formal recommendation by two supervisors to keep the original name.

The last mountain to be named after a president in the USA was Mt. McKinley, but even Sarah Palin calls that Denali.

Monday, February 22, 2010

On the Reagan Trail

The Peoria Journal Star reports on a Reagan-themed tour of Illinois which took place on his birthday this year, led by his son, Michael. The trail went non-chronologically from Reagan's almer-mater, Eureka College, to his birthplace in Tampico, and then to Dixon, which he would come to see as his hometown.

Edmund Morris' Dutch opens with the biographer and former president visiting Tampico, the first time, for Reagan, since his birth. Reagan sees the room in which he was born and retreats in shock.

He showed no interest in what I tried to tell him about the events of eighty years ago in Tampico. Instead, he took refuge in his own stories about Hollywood...Listening to him, I asked myself who of us, forced so brutally to confront the nothingness from which we have sprung, would not have turned away as he did, knowing it to be indistinguishable from - indeed, identical with - the nothingness that looms ahead?

The celebratory tour did not embrace the themes of darkened memory and approaching death. Instead it emphasised the connection between the Hollywood President and his smalltown, Mid-Western origins. Amongst the weirdly framed photos, we see a Dixon statue of the president looking blankly at a handful of Illinois corn kernels. One Eureka senior remarked:

My newfound appreciation for Ronald Reagan comes from seeing the communities in his life, the values he learned, the culture and his upbringing...It's amazing that he never lost sight of who he was and didn't look down on his roots.

This is certainly a theme that Reagan evoked often enough, and which is asserted in his more friendly biographies, and at the Reagan Museum in Simi Valley. It is not the only story of Reagan, however, who quickly left smalltown Illinois to make his fortune in the great cities of Des Moines, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Alonzo Hamby thought it "a measure of his political skill that he made us believe he could have been a contented provincial nonentity".

Some earlier thoughts I had on Reagan and the small town.

Remembering Al Haig

Al Haig's life, 85 years of ambition rewarded and thwarted, has been recalled on his passing this weekend in the context of presidential crisis. His role in the resignation of Nixon, and his actions in the aftermath of Reagan's attempted assassination, are the defining moments of his career. They have made him symbolic of the uncertainty of power when a president is weakened, whether he is regarded as a shepherd of stability, ensuring a painless transition from Nixon to Ford, or a usurper of the constitution and "power-crazed general", breathlessly declaring himself "in control" while Reagan was in surgery.

Two authors, each plugging a book, offer new(ish) perspectives on the soldier-statesman. Paul Kengor, the conservative chronicler of Reagan's faith and Cold War victory, suggests that Haig was a dove in the belligerent first years of the Reagan adminsitration. Tom Schachtman, who seems to be quite an eclectic author now attending to neo-conservative infighting, argues that Haig purposefully undermined President Nixon for his own power-seeking agenda.

Personally, I will always remember Al Haig as Richard Dreyfuss.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Here Were the Brave: CPAC 2010

Reagan had a close relationship with the Conservative Political Action Conference, speaking at its launch in 1973, and returning many times, including during his presidency. There, he energised, inspired and directed the conservative movement, and articulated the rhetorical themes which would define him. CPAC 2010 is ongoing in Washington D.C., and so it is worth asking how Reagan is in attendance this year.

Mickey Edwards, former Oklahoma Congressman and chair of CPAC in its early years, has this year distanced himself from the event - "Why I'm Not at CPAC". Edwards seems to have spent the last few years bewailing the development of modern American conservatism, whether represented by the imperialism of Dick Cheney or the demagoguery of Glenn Beck (both of whom appear at this year's conference, Cheney in an unscheduled address, and Beck as the keynote speaker). Edwards aligns his conservative identity with that of Ronald Reagan, and against the agendas of both Bush and the Tea Party. For Edwards, contemporary conservatives represent a regal presidency and the suppression of civil liberties in the name of security and moral authority. On this basis, "Ronald Reagan would not have been welcome at today's CPAC...but he would not have wanted to be there, either". Goldwater, maybe, but I'm not so sure about Reagan, who never argued for a weakened executive and would, I expect, have been willing to concede to his military and intellegence advisors on post 9/11 security issues.

The central point here, though, is torture, and the queasy adoption of waterboarding as a rallying cry for the right. The Reagan Administration's stance on torture (CIA manuals for Central American allies notwithstanding) has been heralded by its opponents, such as Andrew Sullivan. Most recently, Seth MacFarlane has annoyed Newsbusters by claiming Reagan would have had Dick Cheney tried for war crimes. MacFarlane may have been reading Sullivan, or the continuing efforts by Will Bunch to reclaim Reagan as a moderate and humanitarian.

If the centre, or the left, or cranky Goldwater conservatives are seeking to weaken the right's hold on Reagan's image, their success does not seem evident at CPAC and its "Reagan Banquet". Browsing the speeches so far, the most noticeable echo is not of Reagan in 1980, much less of Reagan 1981-9, but of Reagan in 1964. Marco Rubio, an insurgent conservative contender in the primaries for the Florida senate seat, might be breaking Reagan's 11th Commandment and speaking ill of other Republicans, but his successful speech on Thursday recalled Reagan's declaration of a "time for choosing".

Rubio: You see, 2010 is not just a choice between Republicans and Democrats. It's not just a choice between liberals and conservatives. 2010 is a referendum on the very identity of our nation.

Reagan: You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I'd like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down: [up] man's old -- old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.

In his rhetoric of the sixties and seventies, Reagan consistently defined politics in terms of a stark choice - to succumb to the revolution of the Great Society and its creeping eradication of American freedom, or to rediscover American destiny in conservative principles. Rubio, a descendent of Cuban exiles, gave full voice to the the exceptionalism of American destiny, individual and national, and decried the efforts of the Democratic leadership to deny it - "Do we want to continue to be exceptional, or are we prepared to become like everybody else?" Congressman Tom Price also identified this choice - "One that if we let pass – just might bring to bear Ronald Reagan’s warning that one day we would look back and talk about an America when men were once free."

Apocalyptic warnings are easier in opposition, particularly one whose ambitions are fiercely held but distant in realisation. Reagan's jeremaiads softened as he and conservatism became mainstream. At CPAC in 1981, in one of the first major speeches of his presidency, Reagan recalled his entry to the political stage seventeen years before:

We’ve come to a turning point. We have a decision to make. Will we continue with yesterday’s agenda and yesterday’s failures, or will we reassert our ideals and our standards, will we reaffirm our faith, and renew our purpose? This is a time for choosing.
Implicitly, the choice had been made, and the new president was steeling his supporters for the work ahead. Who knew the same choice would be on the table thirty years later, still unmade?

If we carry the day and turn the tide, we can hope that as long as men speak of freedom and those who have protected it, they will remember us, and they will say, “Here were the brave and here their place of honor.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reagan PAC

Where to start? Why not with Michael Reagan, the first family's second oldest and second least wayward child, and his recent promotion of Reagan PAC, an organisation devoted to supporting conservative candidates in the upcoming elections.

The Committee has been launched in the context of the Tea Party, which Michael discusses in the Sun Journal. His claim that his father would have supported the movement is partly an amplified family spat, in response to his brother, Ron Jr., who recently suggested Ron Sr. would have been "unamused by the tea partiers with their Hitler signs and all the rest of it." It does seem likely that Reagan would have enjoyed and supported the spirit and message of the tea parties, and turned a blind eye to their angrier, uglier moments - certainly, at least, as a candidate. As President, their ire may well have been directed towards him. Micheal's point about not judging a movement by its looks recalls Reagan's description of Berkeley protester as someone who "had a haircut like Tarzan, walked like Jane, and smelled like Cheetah". Comparisons between the anti-establishment protests of the left and right can only go so far, but it would be nice to think that the Tea Party's experience of media demonisation and ridicule might lead to an enlightened respect by the right for the hippies and traitors of the left. (To be fair, Governor and President Reagan did earn some points for earnest, if unsatisfying, engagement with the grassroots demonstrations against his policies.)

Reagan PAC asks of candidates to pledge to five conservative principles, and a standard of ethical behaviour. This is a simpler and broader version of the Reagan purity test which Micahel Steele prevented the RNC from adopting, and which, as has been much discussed and as his son concedes, Reagan may well have failed. Currently, just one candidate has signed the pledge - Rand Paul. Ron Paul made much in 2008 of his isolated support for Ronald Reagan in 1976, and it seems his son is willing to forge his own connection. Ayn Rand, the candidate's namesake, was not so admiring - "'Since he has no program and no ideology to offer, his likeliest motive for entering the Presidential race is power lust.'' (NYT obituary)

"Reagan", it seems, now stands for "Restoring Every American's Government Across the Nation" - Gipperwatch needs its own acronym.

Welcome to Gipperwatch

Ninety-nine years after his birth, and some thirty since he successfully reached the White House, Ronald Reagan still commands our attention and imagination. As his centennial approaches, as the GOP seeks new leadership, and as America tries to evaluate its new(ish) president, Reagan provides regular fruit in Google News searches. This blog hopes to collate these references over the next year (until at least his hundredth birthday next February 6) and comment on Reagan's status in American politics and memory. With luck, and with a bit more care than my last blog received, it should turn out to provide an interesting perspective on things, and a useful resource to anyone interested, ie. me.