Reagan’s Imagined America
The Gipper would have enjoyed celebrating his centennial on that most American of days when two football teams beat each other’s brains out while the nation watches with barbecue and beer.
Ronald Wilson Reagan lived all his life in an imagined country, starting as a sportscaster in a small room with a teletype that told him “GO 3B,” from which, with recorded crowd noises, he would spin a breathless description of a hard smash down the left field line, the third baseman diving headlong to spear the drive and scrambling to his feet in a cloud of dust to beat the runner as his manager yelled from the dugout in protest.
From then on, through Hollywood years and two terms in the White House, Reagan creatively breathed life into grains of truth that would entertain, inspire and sometimes mislead millions. As he turns 100, Barack Obama tactfully notes:
“No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan–and I certainly had my share–there is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America.”
As Sarah Palin keynotes a centennial dinner, what stands out in memory is not Reagan’s politics but his persona, which changed the image of Republicans from a stuffy bunch in exclusive Wall Street clubs to the earthy middle Americans they always fleece.
To get elected, he played that part to the hilt, in 1980 demolishing Jimmy Carter’s attack on his Medicare record with a genial, condescending “There you go again!” and, four years later, defusing the issue of his own advanced age by telling Walter Mondale that he wouldn’t hold his youth and inexperience against him.
What the GOP now likes to remember is the “Morning in America” glaze Reagan put over eight years of White House playacting, crediting his “Tear down that wall!” line for the fall of the Soviet Union, which had been bankrupting itself for decades.
Harmless enough, but the former actor’s truth-stretching is still bedeviling us with an iffy Star Wars missile defense and memories of the Iran-Contra scandal that led to talk of impeachment.
Yet Reagan’s star power was a good fit for the 1980s…