As they do with every president, this past weekend the media devoted 72 hours of non-stop coverage to the centennial of the birth of a deceased ex-president. Given that Wednesday is the anniversary of William Henry Harrison's birth we can expect an equivalent outpouring of attention and adulation.

The coverage I saw over the past few days was very strange – it kept describing this person named "Ronald Reagan." But that must be a common name or something, because the person they described didn't sound anything at all like the Ronald Reagan who was once president. Ronnie has long since mutated from merely Overrated to Canonized, but now we appear to have reached a stage beyond that. It is no longer sufficient to idealize the man and his accomplishments – we simply recast him and his entire political life based on whatever ideological cause needs to use him as a mascot. This is despite the fact that if Ronald Reagan was alive today, it's pretty clear that he would think that most of the people who say his name with great reverence are idiots. Which is saying something.

Two interesting quotes courtesy C&L, one from historian Richard N. Smith and the second from the director of the Reagan Library.

Before he became an icon, Ronald Reagan was a paradox: a complex man who appeared simple, at once a genial fundamentalist and a conservative innovator. As America's oldest President, he found his most fervent supporters among the young. The only divorced man to occupy the Oval Office, Reagan as President rarely attended church. He enjoyed a relationship with his own children best described as intermittent. Yet his name was synonymous with traditional values, and he inspired millions of the faithful to become politically active for the first time. During eight years in the White House, Reagan never submitted a balanced budget or ceased to blame Congress for excessive spending. He presided over the highest unemployment rate since World War II and one of the longest peacetime booms ever.


If the Age of Reagan is anywhere consigned to the history books, it is among those who claim his mantle while practicing little of their hero's sunny optimism and even less of his inclusiveness. Reagan, after all, excelled at the politics of multiplication. Too many of his professed admirers on talk radio and cable gabfests appear to prefer division.

If there's one thing modern conservatives are constitutionally incapable of understanding, it's the idea that anything, least of all a person, can be complex. Everything is black and white. Good and evil. Right and wrong. For it or against it. So they created a Reagan who just so happened to stand for whatever it is they need him to stand for. Their Reagan is some kind of Conservative Superhero who gave no quarter, not the real Reagan of whom Joe Biden speaks fondly regarding his willingness to cut deals at the drop of a hat. This distorted image of their hero makes about as much sense as Teabaggers invoking the spirit of Washington or Hamilton.

For conservatives, and possibly for all of us, "Reagan" has become like Gandhi or Martin Luther King – a Santa Claus figure, a mascot. We know almost nothing about him (and what we do know is wrong) but we know he was Good and worthy of our adulation for some reason, a reason that varies based on whatever it is we need Reagan to represent in our preferred narrative.

But seriously, who was that guy they were talking about all weekend? The name sounded familiar, but that's about it.

33 thoughts on “HERO WORSHIP”

  • What's weird is that he was able to attain the Gandhi-King-Lincoln level of amorphous mascothood without actually doing anything. All the other aforementioned figures fit the mold of a Christ-like figure, a hero who had to suffer for our sins and in the process absolve us. That narrative is very easy to twist depending on what one defines as a sin and what one defines as redemption, so it's not surprising to see those people taken up and used by ideologically disparate groups.

    Reagan, on the other hand, is as pure a creation of the right wing media machine as you will ever find. It's like a crystal, so many gleaming facets that sparkle brightly in the light. It's beautiful, in a way, but at the same time pretty scary.

    The fact that St. Ronnie is now included in the national stations of the cross beside the most revered people history has ever produced is a testament to the power of the Unholy Trinity of the politicians, corporations and the media.

    The fact that they can take a guy who destroyed Central America for political purposes and ran guns to the people who had taken America hostage and make everyone genuflect in front of him to be considered a real American means that, given enough time, they can do anything.

    Scary stuff.

  • "Ronald Reagan was a paradox." Huh. Well, that's one way of putting it. Me, I'd've gone with "a hypocrite." But I suppose that's just my old "everything looks worse if you remember it" bias at play.

  • There's a great moment in Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert that I think captures Reagan's appeal. The book covers the sordid history of big western water projects, particularly the pork barrel politics that often drove them. A California irrigator was asked why he and his ilk supported Reagan when a number of Reagan's proposals when entering office would have killed off expensive proposals by demanding a greater degree of cost recoverey from states and beneficiaries. His answer: "Well, Reagan understands us." (The inquisitor's rely: "You can get cheaper understanding from a psychiatrist.") I think that was one of Reagan's greatest skills as president. He somehow convinced a great number of people that he was "one of them" even when his actions demonstrated that was unequivocally not the case. I think it's a lesson the Republican party learned well.

  • My mom used to say, "Hey, girls, watch this!" and she would hold her breath, point at the traffic light, and boom! it would change from red to green. That's what comes to mind each time someone gets misty about Reagan telling Gorbachev to Tear. Down. This. Wall.

    Oh, it never would have happened without you, Ronnie. Why hadn't anyone tried being firm with them? You genius, you.

    I'll skip my diatribe on his failures, hypocrisy, and malfeasance, which are all well documented (if thoroughly ignored), but I do loathe his presidency nearly as much as Nixon's.

  • Want to see Reagans legacy and our future? Visit Central America. The workers and farmers have seen all the gains they made in the 1960s and 1970s eliminated and are once again enjoying the status of serfs they knew before then.

  • Dryden said it for me. "Complex?" Is that Newspeak for mind-bending self-contradiction? "Gummint is the problem" and profligate spending. The folksy commoner who demonized non-existent "welfare queens." The genial grandfather image who launched his campaign from Philadelphia, Mississippi.

    Can we say the Father of Modern Hypocrisy?

  • I'll skip my diatribe on his failures, hypocrisy, and malfeasance, which are all well documented (if thoroughly ignored), but I do loathe his presidency nearly as much as Nixon's.

    Actually, I enjoy reading these types of diatribes, and in the mood for another. It never gets old.

  • electricgrendel says:

    Reagan is the perfect conservative symbol. He said a great deal about government being the problem, but then he grew government. He said a great deal about the budget not being balanced, but then he never balanced the budget. He cast himself as a fiscal hawk, but then exploded the national debt.

    Look at every single conservative leader since him. The only one who has had to pay for saying one thing and doing another was Bush I. All the rest are pious on the subject of fiscal restraint, and wanton in their budgets. Bush even said he was against nation building, and look what he did.

    Conservatives love the idea of Reagan and are fully cognizant of the fact he actualized very little of what he said he believed in. They just don't care. They know they can feed at the trough, fight the culture war and then leave a smoldering wreck for Democrats to clean up. Then, because the American electorate is demonstrably stupid, they can just blame Democrats for the mess. And get re-elected. See: election 2000, and election 2010.

  • I don't think Ed's post was intended to be a trashing of Ronald Reagan as much as he was pointing out that, once again, the political system (along with their trained ventriloquist dummies) distort and lie to force feed the gullible and the nauseated a plate full of bullshit in order to fan the flames of the deception-du-jour in Washington D.C. In this particular case it was a conservative. Next time it will be a journalist with tingling legs because he has his nose up Obama's ass crack. They are men and nothing more. I learned this when I saw JFKs head explode when I was a child. And the American public continues to suck it up like soda pop. My biggest worry is that I am and millions of others are becoming so fucking cynical that we will miss something important when it actually happens.

  • 1) Ronnie said he'd cut taxes, and balance the budget through reduced spending. He cut taxes, for sure. And tripled the debt, b/c he couldn't cut spending. Hence, VP Cheney's claim that "Reagan taught us that deficits don't matter."
    2) "Welfare Queen" was just a scapegoat-term so middle-class, White failures could feel better than someone, and could be racist misogynists without being overt. "Welfare Queen's" were always black.
    3) I do think President Reagan's great strengths were his charm and willingness to horse-trade. And I think it's funny that, since Karl Rove turned "resolve" and "litmus test" into good things for international relations, we've retroactively applied them to Saint Ronnie.

  • For conservatives, and possibly for all of us, "Reagan" has become like Gandhi or Martin Luther King – a Santa Claus figure, a mascot.

    Heh. I've been calling him St. Ronnie whenever one of my conservative friends start in with the hagiography, but I might have to switch to Reagan Claus.

  • I'm feeling charitable, maybe Reagan would be aghast at how the country's gone downhill. BTW, how many bottles of "Ol' tax cut" has the GOP drank?

  • Monkey Business says:

    The reason Reagan has become canonized by the Right is that he represents the clear split between Old Conservatism and New Conservatism.

    Old Conservatism was where you actually had to be, you know, conservative. Limited government, limited foreign intervention, limited spending, etc. Some of our better Presidents were Old Conservative.

    However, Reagan was something new. He preached limited government, but expanded it every chance he got. He preached limited foreign intervention, but stuck America's nose everywhere he could. He preached limited spending, but spent like a sailor on leave. In doing so, he perfected what Nixon had created: the 21st Century conservative.

    Deficits don't matter, unless the other side wants to run one; then it's a fucking disaster. We can waste as many lives as we want "spreading democracy" and killing prisoners, but God help us if we harm one single cell of one unborn embryo. We can cut taxes, as long as they're mostly for the people at the top. Everyone else has to subsist on their runoff.

    Ronald Reagan represents the triumph of the elites and the corporations they own and run over the common man, and the codification of that triumph in government.

  • St. Ronnie of Reagan did cut some taxes, but he also raised taxes in 7 of his 8 years. He started taxing things that had never been taxed before like unemployment benefits, which wouldn't bother the rich, only the middle class and the poor.

    He cut and ran in Lebanon and then invaded Granada to restore his manhood. Granada had some Cuban engineers building a new airport and we had to protect the Americans on island from the commies.

    He dealt with terrorists in Iran, both during his Presidency and before with the hostage situation in 1980. Their release after he was sworn in wasn't a coincidence.

    There are lots of other examples like when he fired the air traffic controllers and busted their union, PATCO. That showed all the corporations it was OK to union bust and wages and benefits have been going downhill as a result.

    This isn't a diatribe of the man, just the facts!!

  • One of your better pieces. The hero worship culture is sickening. If I see one more piece on our heroes in the armed forces, I am going to throw up in my mouth. They're not heroes. They're the dumbest among us for allowing themselves to be poor and abused tools for the American oligarchy. Voluntarily getting your ass shot off on a fifth tour in Afghanistan is not an heroic act in the slightest. It's simply brainwashed stupidity.

  • @Hazy Davy: Help me reconcile the "tax cut" assertion with the statement made by multiple, usually reliable journalists, that Reagan presided over the single greatest tax hike in American history. Were these separate events, several years apart?

  • @anotherbozo. No need to rely on me…the information's on the Internet.
    (And maybe I should have checked it before I posted…)

    There were certainly tax cuts for the wealthy—the top income tax rate was 70% when he entered office, and was 28% when he left. http://money.cnn.com/2010/09/08/news/economy/reagan_years_taxes/index.htm

    (with a whole lot more info on Reagan, tax cuts, and revenue from taxes.)

    And I apologize for knee-jerking all tangential, Ed. Yes, we do love archetypes: the scapegoatted villian, the valiant freedom-lover (and it's funny how we often convert one to the other), the idealized hero…

    No, I think that when you look at Reagan's legacy (which, despite a death-bed recantation, is also Lee Atwaters), I think it's:
    1) the Religious Right's influence over American politics
    2) the "virtue" of summarization and simplification, even for the key decision makers on complex issues [remember the one-page daily reports?]
    3) the preference for Everyman over an "elitist'…without Presidency-for-Bonzo, we probably don't elect W. And I don't think we continue to give Sarah Palin a platform: http://rudepundit.blogspot.com/2011/02/in-brief-breaking-sarah-palin-fast.html
    4) the rise of the Jelly Belly.

  • @ladiesbane: Awesome point, but the truth is even worse.

    After the Cold War was well and truly over, when former Soviets could tell tales without fear of being shuffled off to the nearest gulag, a lot of people in Gorbachev's government commented on the actual impact of that speech, basically saying "Oh, yeah, we knew the wall was gonna come down pretty soon–we were already planning the transition–but then that asshole made that speech, and we had to delay those plans for a *long* time, because if he told us to tear it down, and then two weeks later, we did, we'd've looked like total prison-bitches. So basically he got the opposite of what he asked for–it meant the wall came down much much later than it had to. Which, really, he should have *known* would be the result of that speech. Which means, from our perspective, that he was either an idiot, or he straight-up didn't give a shit about the East Berliners. Either way, major dick move on his part."

    That speech had two audiences–the rah-rah-ers in the West, and the Soviets, who actually had the power to ease the suffering of millions. We always forget that for one of those two audiences, the speech was a diplomatic failure of epic proportions. When I'm shown that clip (and thanks to this week, it has been rammed down my throat like some kind of homoerotic simile) and St. Ronnie says, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," I always respond, as Gorbachev, "Well, I was going to, until you opened your goddamned mouth, drama queen."

  • Crikey, that Salon piece is damning.

    Reagan would be drummed out of today's GOP as a RINO. As much as I hate his legacy and his canonization, the most interesting thing about this weekend's great national rimjob was reflecting on how much further rightward the nation, just in the last 20 years, has tilted.

  • This is SOP with the morally bankrupt conservative movement, which peddles in nothing so much as ideological revisionism. Don't like the social justice, anti-war parts of Christianity? No problem! You can still proclaim yourself a Christian AND ignore those inconvenient parts of the Bible you don't like! Or follow Andy Schlafly's model and just write yourself a new on!

    Don't like those inconvenient parts of American history that show us to be less awesome than you'd like? No problem! Just ignore those smallpox-laced blankets handed out to Native Americans, the foreign dictators we've propped up and all those other nasty bits. You can still wave your flag because no one will notice! And if something should happen to hit the national dialogue that's a little unpleasant, follow Michelle Bachmann's model and just make shit up!

    This works when your entire following consists of uneducated, misinformed and gullible rubes. So ignore Reagan's government expanding, deficit ballooning, middle class taxing legacy. Forget that stuff about the astrologers and Wave that flag, proclaim yourself

  • The Man, The Myth says:

    Good post and comments. I'm just waiting for the next planet to be discovered so we can name something else after the greatest President in the history of the Universe. Planet Reagan in 20 years.

  • I went to a Bad Religion concert, and at one point Graffin made a comment abt the Reagan years. People started cheering then he said, "I don't know what you're cheering for. Those weren't good times."

  • America is for glorification
    turning black blood intwo
    red roses

    still fool of treat
    and beat

    westsize sleet
    finally wondering
    who's fit to sweep
    after the party

    is over
    begin again


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