Friday, July 30, 2010

"If you think I can play Ronald Reagan, you must be French"

I am looking forward to seeing Farewell, a French espionage movie about a KGB mole and the stories surrounding him. Eighties Cold War thrillers are always a winner for me, but I am chiefly excited for its rare inclusion of Ronald Reagan as a character, and more so for the fact that Fred Ward will be playing him. If Ward brings to the film everything he brought to Tremors, it may be the best representation of Reagan ever (though there is little competition). An interview with the director is here, and the trailer is below:

Reagan vs. Harvey Milk

A Dallas Voice blogger responds to California's creation of Ronald Reagan Day by looking for comparisons between Reagan and Harvey Milk, who also has a day in the state (May 22).
Both Milk and Reagan lived in California, but neither was born there. Reagan was from Illinois. Milk was from New York. Both began their political careers in California and both were targeted by gunmen. Reagan, of course, recovered. Obviously, the similarities end there.
Fortunately, this is not true - both Milk and Reagan were instrumental in defeating Proposition 6 in California in 1978, which would have persecuted homosexual teachers. Milk provided the organisation and leadership, while Reagan offered his influence over Californian conservatives. David Mixner, a leading activist on the No campaign, explained:
Despite all our good work, everyone involved had taken the Proposition from 75% in favor of firing homosexual school teachers down to only 55%. We were having a helluva a time gaining that last 6%. We knew we needed something big to push us over the top and we needed it soon since we were in the last weeks of the campaign. There is no doubt in my mind that the man who put us over the top was California Governor Ronald Reagan. His opposition to Proposition 6 killed it for sure.
Mixner describes Reagan's involvement with the issue and his libertarian opposition here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Administration Resurfacing

A couple of Reagan administration veterans have got their points across recently. Edwin Meese was in Michigan, confirming that he is on the correct side of the party line - Tea Party good, Obama bad. Meanwhile, Richard Perle has appeared in Foreign Policy with an angry rebuttal to Peter Beinart's analysis of Reagan's dovish qualities. What could have been simple correction of Beinart's understanding of Reagan's arms control strategy becomes a confusing ramble where Perle insists on defining everything in terms of the conservative/liberal divide:
Beinart is not alone in confusing a tough, deliberate application of American power to achieve American ends with the bellicose reckless abandon that he seems to think is the essence of a "conservative" foreign policy. Indeed, it is a common liberal conceit (which Beinart swallows whole) that conservatives, like Reagan, are always spoiling for a fight, eager to launch wars and send American troops in harm's way.
It is reasonable to point out that there is a mythology on the left which sees Reagan as a reckless, bloodthirsty, nuclear cowboy, but thoughtless not to also concede the supportive myth of Reagan as a relentless warrior - particularly in response to an article which portrays Reagan as neither. Still, Beinart's arguments and many like them seem designed to undermine conservatives by denying them their central icon, so it is hardly surprising that defensive conservatives take the bait.

It is, perhaps, a consequence of Reagan's continuing symbolic presence in American politics that his former officials remain so dull and partisan.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"A few isolated groups in the backwater of American life"

The NAACP has this week proposed a resolution which will condemn the Tea Party for its tolerance of racism within its ranks.

At the risk of this blog turning into Gipper-and Palin-watch*, I was interested in the former Alaskan governor's Facebook riposte which, yet again, evokes Ronald Reagan:
President Reagan called America’s past racism “a legacy of evil” against which we have seen the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights. He condemned any sort of racism, as all good and decent people do today. He also called it a “point of pride for all Americans” that as a nation, we have successfully struggled to overcome this evil. Reagan rightly declared that “there is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country,” and he warned that we must never go back to the racism of our past.
This opened a straightforward denial and evasion of the issue which the NAACP provocatively addressed, reinforced by an avowal of personal colourblindness - which, like Reagan, she expressed as founded in her family experience.

Palin found in Reagan's 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, known most for its "evil empire" line, his declaration of a post-racist America. She might have also noted his horror at "the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice" and his call for the audience to "use the mighty voice of your pulpits and the powerful standing of your churches to denounce and isolate these hate groups in our midst". Still, she is generally accurate in her representation of Reagan's belief in America's triumph over its racial division. This was a self-deception, albeit one that was practical and politically useful - allowing Reagan to incorporate the Civil Rights Act he opposed into a narrative of American exceptionalism, and ignore the southern strategy which he employed.

More appropriately, Palin might have quoted Reagan's speech in 1981 to the NAACP's annual convention:
A few isolated groups in the backwater of American life still hold perverted notions of what America is all about. Recently in some places in the nation there's been a disturbing reoccurrence of bigotry and violence. If I may, from the platform of this organization, known for its tolerance, I would like to address a few remarks to those groups who still adhere to senseless racism and religious prejudice, to those individuals who persist in such hateful behavior.If I were speaking to them instead of to you, I would say to them, "You are the ones who are out of step with our society. You are the ones who willfully violate the meaning of the dream that is America. And this country, because of what it stands for, will not stand for your conduct."
The speech went on to acknowledge continued African-American economic inequality, but emphasised that the answer lay in tying the NAACP's goals to achieving general economic independence and ending reliance on federal intervention. In light of, amongst other issues, Reagan's opposition to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, the speech met a chilly response - and Reagan never returned. Later in his presidency, the chair of the NAACP , William F. Gibson, would call the administration "anti-black, anti-woman, anti-minority and anti-civil rights", and Reagan personally as "reactionary and racist".

Reagan's attacks on racism extended only as far as the extremist fringe, never to those he counted as his political base or allies. Palin echoes his political evasion. Still, the NAACP's resolution suggests a tendency to view any conservative movement as a resurgence of massive resistance, and to attack it, vigourously, politically and symbollically - evading any possibility of aligning African-American advancement with conservative aims, or effectively isolating truly racially-motivated activists.

*I have discovered another site which has taken on this role enthusiastically.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Palin at Simi Valley?

An Alaskan blogger is reporting the possibility that Sarah Palin is planning to announce her candidacy for president on Reagan's centennial at the Reagan Library. This is the second rumour concerning Palin's announcement and its likely appropriation of Reagan's memory, though now with a new location.

The Reagan Library has become a traditional stopping point for Republican presidential campaigns. George W. Bush, John McCain and Stephen Forbes all visited in the run-up to the 2000 election, and in 2008, the opening and closing primary debates were held there. No candidates have announced there yet, and I personally find it unlikely that the library would allow such an appearance of endorsement - let alone on February 6th, when it may be unwilling to share the limelight. Moreover, this brings to mind another incident, when Palin's people had to deny that she was making her first gubernatorial appearance in Simi Valley last year.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Centering Reagan

The efforts to distance Reagan from contemporary conservatism continue. Cenk Uygur argues clumsily on MSNBC that Obama is more conservative than Reagan was, while Andrew Romano in Newsweek makes a more substantial case for Reagan's moderation, asking "What Would Reagan Really Do?". These are little more than retreads of arguments that have been popping up the past year or two, but it is interesting that the reaction to conservative mythography still has momentum. The question is, when will liberals start believing their own counter-propaganda and start celebrating Reagan as a symbol of moderation, unity and continuity?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


The Siena College Research Institute has released the results of its fifth presidential ranking survey, placing Reagan 18th. The results, collated from the participation of 238 scholars, can be found in pdf here, and some analysis here.

Craig Shirley is hopping mad that Reagan scored so middling, but more so that he ranks below Obama, who came 15th. I'd agree that Obama is a weird presence on the list, and tha his ranking is distorted by the glamour and intensity of contemporary politics, and probably by the progressive bias within academia. I'd also say that the choice of Craig Shirley, a public relations man and former Reagan employee, as a contributor emphasises this. Sensitive to the liberal leanings of historians, or at least the accusation of liberal bias, Siena may have sought the insipid political "balance" found on cable news shows. If I were to rank Shirley on some list, incidentally, he'd gain points for imaginative language - "Reagan put the neck of Soviet communism under the heel of his cowboy boot and crushed the life out of it" - but lose points for forgetting Reagan's important, career-transitioning autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?, in his effort to portray Obama's memoirs as narcissistic self promotion.

Nevertheless, I also agree that Reagan should be higher. Looking at the breakdown, it shows that he scored highly in leadership and communication abilities, including his relationship with Congress. Brilliantly, and somewhat ambiguously, he is also ranked the third luckiest president. He is let down by his judicial and executive appointments, which may be a bit harsh, but the tendency towards the ideologically correct over the morally and legally scrupulous was certainly damning. He also scores very low, 34th, on "background", explained as "family, education and experience". Quite how you rank a presidential family, I don't know, and Reagan's education seems to me pretty average. He was, though, an immensely experienced presidential candidate - a two term Californian governor and union leader, a corporate insider and cultural elite.

His position is also let down by an unreasonably average score on "imagination". Did political hacks like LBJ, JFK, Clinton - and Obama - really have stronger imaginations than Reagan? The man was trained in Hollywood, for gooodness' sake. On "integrity", he comes a below average 26th, which on balance I think is fair. He had considerable personal integrity, but this was undermined by a lack of self-awareness, and it was not a quality which defined his often illusory, deceptive presidency. Finally, Reagan's lowest score is on "intelligence", where he comes 36th, 7th from bottom. Reagan's intelligence is often underestimated, so this seems unfair, but it is, after all, an illustrious list with many bright people on it.

As Shirley points out, on the polls which measure the public's ranking of presidents, Reagan has recently put in some very high appearances. I don't think this demonstrates the worthlessness and out-of-touch elitism of this list, though, but it suggests to me a category which is not included in the survey, and which might improve Reagan's score. There should be room for measuring a president's "resonance" or "remembrance" or even just "legacy". Presidents can still lead and wield symbolic power long after they are gone, and it is then that they become iconic and "great". Lincoln and Washington were successful and extraordinary executives, for example, but their greatness lies in their continued imprint on American politics and identity. An acknowledgement of Reagan's lasting power, whatever his political or personal mediocrities, should elevate him to a more suitable position in the top dozen presidents.