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.

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