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.