Monday, March 29, 2010

Podhoretz and Palin and Reagan

Sarah Palin has not been shy of associating herself with Ronald Reagan. She quotes him often, she named her book after his book, and her current activities echo the choices Reagan made in his own wilderness years, maintaining her public profile as a freelance campaigner and a "news analyst".

Arch-Neoconservative Norman Podhoretz has also looked back to this period to find similarities between the two prospective presidential candidates, but in the common reaction to them by conservative intellectuals. Except Podhoretz, of course.

It's hard to imagine now, but 31 years ago, when I first announced that I was supporting Reagan in his bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, I was routinely asked by friends on the right how I could possibly associate myself with this "airhead," this B movie star, who was not only stupid but incompetent. They readily acknowledged that his political views were on the whole close to ours, but the embarrassing primitivism with which he expressed them only served, they said, to undermine their credibility.

"I knew Ronald Reagan," he says, "and Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan," but her dismissal by the likes of David Frum and Christopher Buckley is akin to the elitism with which conservative intellectuals met Reagan's candidacy. Except it wasn't, not really. Reagan not only had the long time backing of William Buckley, he also garnered after 1976 the support of the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. This is part of the essential difference between Reagan then and Palin now. Reagan's media presence had a broad syndication on radio and in the papers, while Palin is tied to the Fox machine and the Facebook choir. Reagan set out to lead a coalition of conservative interests - elites and common folk, intellectuals and dumbasses - while maintaining an independent voice. Palin is positioning herself to lead a distinct populist movement, hostile to any compromising alliance, which will limit her appeal. It might as well be said that Reagan also used his time to travel and meet foreign leaders and counterparts such as the Shah and Margaret Thatcher. Maybe Palin will seek out an audience with Hamid Karzai or David Cameron, but I can't see it appealing to her base.

Of course, Reagan was something of an elite in the late seventies, with tons of money and a Hollywood address book, while Palin is defnitely not. However disingenuously she claims not to be a politician, she can fairly claim to be an outsider. But if conservative intellectuals don't like her, it needn't be because of who she is, but because she does not like them - or represents a movement which does not like or want them, and which seems to have contributed to an atmosphere of constraint over conservative thought. Reagan was never so self-limiting

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Crist and Christie: Not Reagans.

Two Republican Governors with amusingly similar names have been hit with charges that they are not Ronald Reagan.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is under fire from local conservatives for not being a local conservative. Tom Waits look-a-like Paul Mulshine argues here that by not firing government workers, talking about zero-based budgeting and acknowledging global warming, Christie is acting more like Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan. Scanning his other posts, it seems Mulshine is also frustrated with the ideological impurity of the American Spectator and Rush Limbaugh.

In Florida, Governor Charlie Crist met with his insurgent competition for the GOP senate nomination, Marco Rubio, in a nationally televised debate. A suspect moderate, Crist was compelled to confirm four times that he would not run as an independent were his campaign to crumple before the primary. Rubio responded with the insinuation that even to be questioned was proof of disloyalty:
If I may, the governor likes to call himself a Reagan Republican. I don't ever recall Reagan being questioned about running as an independent.
Lightning quick, and possibly not helping his case, Crist countered:
Actually, Reagan was a Democrat before he was a Republican...So if you want to talk about Reagan, let's talk about him.
Disappointingly, the candidates did not go on to discuss the Gipper, save for Rubio's bland echo of the 1980 slogan - "Are you better off than you were four years ago"? Crist might have pointed out that Reagan had been asked to run as an independent (or Conservative Party) opponent to Nixon in 1972 by the Young Americans for Freedom. He shut them up, of course, but speculation about his possible break with the party was hardly absent then, or in 1976. The situation is clear, though. When once the right-wing was seen at odds with the mainstream party, now it is the relative moderate who is expected to make the break. In Florida, anyway, if not in New York.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The End of the Age of Reagan

Reagan has been an occasional reference during the healthcare debate. Conservatives flooded Youtube with his attacks on socialised medicine from the early sixties. Democrats, in using reconciliation to push through the bill, turned to a tactic first tried by Republicans to realise Reagan's early tax and spending cuts.

Now that Obama's healthcare reform has become law, the word is that the Age of Reagan is over. David Leonhardt describes the Reagan era as three decades of rising wealth inequality, and the healthcare bill the first piece of legislation that reverts the trajectory Reagan pursued. Rush Limbaugh despairs at the Age's passing:

In the early eighties I earned less than I ever had in my life and I still loved Ronald Reagan and I still loved what was going on. Americans loved their country. We had come off of four years of utter disaster called Jimmy Carter, and we now have Jimmy Carter's second term, only worse. Carter was a bumbling idiot but I don't think he really despised the country. We're being led by people that don't like this country or at least they've been raised not to like it.

At Hot Air, J.E. Dyer challenges Leonhardt's definition of the Reagan era, arguing that the trends he points to stem from the regulatory legislation of the 1970s.

Meanwhile, a dual image of Reagan has been evoked in the New York Times in response to the anger of the Tea Party. Timothy Egan cannot imagine the Gipper amongst the protestors or engaging in the frantic, aggressive rhetoric of the GOP: "Reagan was all about sunny optimism, and at times bipartisan bonhomie. In him, the American people saw their better half." Paul Krugman disagrees: "For today’s G.O.P. is, fully and finally, the party of Ronald Reagan — not Reagan the pragmatic politician, who could and did strike deals with Democrats, but Reagan the antigovernment fanatic, who warned that Medicare would destroy American freedom."

The Age of Reagan might persevere as long as it is understood as a movement of resistance, as long as he is seen as a figure of opposition, rather than government.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Progress is Our Most Important Product

When I visited in 2008, the Reagan Library had in its AV collection a few dozen episodes of General Electric Theater, which Reagan hosted and starred in during the 1950s. The tapes I watched left no great impression on me, save for the confidence with which the host promoted his employer's message of American progress and innovation. Last week the library was gifted the full collection of 208 episodes, discovered and restored by GE after being presumed lost as TV ephemera. Whatever else might be lurking in the NBC archives, this was a very timely discovery given GE's prominent sponsorship of the Reagan Centennial. Along with the tapes, GE CEO Jeff Immelt pledged $10 million for the library's celebration and refurbishment, and $5 million to a scholarship programme.

Immelt's speech described Reagan's employment by GE, as an actor and as an "employee ambassador" who toured facilities to raise morale and communicate the company philosophy to the workers. Rather than focus on Reagan's internalisation during this period of Lemuel Boulware's conservative ideology and management theory (as explored by Thomas Evans), Immelt presented Reagan as a model for GE's contemporary ambitions, methods, character and principles. This reversal is suitable for the CEO, joined GE in 1982, am enthusiastic disciple of Reaganomics. It is also the theme of GE's new advertising campaign, where Reagan is not presented as the creation of the company, but its inspiration:

A longer version can be viewed on GE's website, along with reminiscences ("progress reports") by the usual suspects as well as ordinary GE-employed folk. There is even a "Storyline" to call for what appears to be their own, weird, oral history project. The effect of this campaign is to reduce the significance of Reagan's, or GE's, politics, and promote him as a national symbol of American character. Immelt concentrated on themes of optimisim, determination, leadership and openness; Reagan's party and policies are second to his personal greatness and his national significance:

Ronald Reagan set an example for the country. I try to manage my life, and my company, to do the same. Always listen. Always try to learn. Always try to improve. Stay humble. Make those around you better. Appreciate your responsibility to perform with integrity and to make things better. Nearly 60 years after GE and Ronald Reagan first worked together, we are honored to renew the association. I am very proud GE can play a small role in celebrating the extraordinary life, character, service and legacy of Ronald Reagan. And, may I add, GE still believes progress is our most important product. No business created and operating in America should ever believe anything less. And should we ever forget it, we have the example of the great man whom we pay tribute to today to recall us to our senses and our obligations.

It's more fun if you imagine Jack Donaghy delivering the homilies.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Reagan Test

Larry Schweikart, author of A Patriot's History of the United States, ought to know something about political bias in the representation of history. He has recently phoned in an opinion to Fox News about the perennial debate over the content of history textbooks, arguing for the usefulness of his Reagan Test.

As the Texas textbook battle continues to simmer, Schweikart says the first thing he does to determine whether a book is politically slanted is to go to any section discussing President Ronald Reagan. What you'll find there, he says, will tell you everything you need to know, he says.

Schweikart first advocated this "pregnancy test" for political distortion in his book 48 Liberal Lies About American History. He can be seen advocating it in 2008 on, yes, Fox News here. As ever, Reagan is offered as a great national figure of American history, but maintained as a touchstone of partisan discord. Conservatives: if you love someone, set them free.

Points must be given for Schwiekart's inspiring historical method: "I lived through the Reagan years, I remember."

Monday, March 15, 2010

What Reagan can do for Obama

President Obama's current woes might be lifted, would he only learn from the Gipper. In the New Republic, John B. Judis suggests that the White House follow Reagan's strategy for the 1982 midterms. This argument for more coherent and effective (and negative) communication is echoed by Elanor Clift in Newsweek.

Obama, though, appears to have renounced Reagan-esque communication, favouring the verbal over the visual. Though a reaction to the blithe triumphalism of the Bush presidency, the White House's decision to avoid staged performance amounts to a rejection of the presidential image that was defined in the eighties. Director of communications Dan Pfeiffer explains: "We don’t want to participate in the artifice of politics that have turned so many people off. Great images are important but they should be believable to people who did not study at the knee of Michael Deaver." The aura of illusion, fantasy and falsehood that Reagan brought to the presidency must be purged, even if it means sacrificing the magic and mystique. Given the style of Obama's campaign, though, this abstinence from glamourous pseudo-events seems more like penitent self-denial than principled reform of the presidency.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Back on the Radio

A Texas radio station has mysteriously started to play just Reagan speeches.

The country music station plays soft, but there's nothing, really nothing to turn off...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Reagan vs. Grant

In a blow to U.S. Grant fans, Representative Patrick McHenry (R, NC) has introduced a bill to place Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill. Joan Waugh, a UCLA historian who is currently researching President Grant in American memory, says "Shame!". Grant's image as a corrupt, incompetent drunk is the result, she argues, of a campaign by Confederate sympathisers in the late 19th century: "All those images are distorted, reflecting a larger historical amnesia afflicting many citizens. The GOP should defend the former leader rather than trying to oust him from the $50 bill."

McHenry is a conservative southerner, the 17th most conservative member of the House, but it is unclear whether his idea is born of any inherited hostility towards the saviour of the Union. Instead, it seems part of the continued effort to elevate Reagan as a national historical icon. The congressman announced that "every generation needs its own heroes. One decade into the 21st century, it's time to honor the last great president of the 20th and give President Reagan a place beside Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy."

Given that the bill, at least in the current session of Congress, is likely to go the way of all other Republican attempts to put Reagan on currency, there is perhaps a more immediate purpose to the bill, which is to elevate McHenry as a national conservative leader. Last month McHenry found himself with two challengers for the GOP nomination to his seat, who appear to be to be coming from the populist right, drawing on dissatisfaction with Congress and incumbency in general. McHenry's bill, which has drawn national and international attention, must be interpreted as an early campaign maneuver, one which employs his incumbency to establish himself as a party leader. His opponents are unimpressed. Though careful to emphasise their own Gipper love, the bill is presented as a distraction from vital local issues: "13.6 percent of our neighbors don't have a $50 bill to look at because they are unemployed.