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Kakutani noted that Reagan’s official biographer, Edmund Morris, acclaimed for taking the measure of Theodore Roosevelt, “was so perplexed by [Reagan’s] opacity and contradictions that he abandoned his efforts to write a serious work of history and instead produced ‘Dutch’… a cringe-making hodgepodge of fact and fiction, narrated by an imaginary alter ego.”
A lot of ordinary Americans who remember the Reagan era scratch their heads too. Others don’t; they’re as unfazed by Reagan’s contradictions as some are by, well, the Bible’s. But among Americans too young to remember Reagan well, there’s something about him a lot of them might not get: Reagan left America with a larger federal government and almost triple the national debt, so why do conservatives remember his presidency as a golden era and President Reagan as only slightly less infallible than God?
And the answer is, they don’t.
I’ve been leafing through old issues of the Reader lately to prepare the weekly retrospective page we’re running to mark our 40th anniversary. In the 1976 binders, I came across an essay on Reagan. He’d wrapped up his second term as governor of California two years earlier, and now he was a candidate for president, challenging his party’s incumbent, Gerald Ford. The crucial California primary was approaching. The headline to the essay, written by Ed Kiersh, was “Running: California,” but it was the long subhead that caught my eye. It said:
“Reagan’s supporters—the sort who can pay $150 a head to hear endorsements from John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Andy Devine — once felt that demonstrators were taking over American streets and campuses. Now it is a short jump for them to fear federal courts, spending programs, and business regulation. This is the politics of paranoia.”
The politics of then is the politics of now. Reaganites saw him already as they remember him today — yet he was still four years away from being elected president. Being president was something he did — it’s his teachings that made him holy. If he’d never reached the White House, genuflection would be less widespread among younger conservatives such as Sarah Palin, who was 12 years old in 1976 and isn’t one to curl up with ancient texts. But adepts might regard his doctrine as even more divine, because there’d be no real-world compromises casting shadows on it.
Kiersch followed Reagan to an Orange County reception where he was introduced by John Wayne and then said, “The name of the game is telling government what to do, instead of their telling us. I am sick and tired of the stupidity in Washington that prevents housewives from going to supermarkets and letting them buy breakfast cereal without government help. . . . There are far too many rules limiting the independent businessman. Why, if the ten billion forms to 3500 agencies were laid end to end it would extend three miles by a half mile. I say we set fire to the whole mess and have one great Bicentennial bonfire.”
It was potent stuff. The next time you go to Jewel and choose freely between Wheat Chex and Cap’n Crunch, think about which forefather spoke up for this right and how many others didn't.
UPDATE: Monday brought email from Reince Priebus, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. It began:
This Sunday, February 6th, marks the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, our 40th President, and a towering, visionary figure in the history of the Republican Party, the United States and the free world.
The Republican National Committee is celebrating this milestone with a special website devoted to President Reagan. The website will feature video tributes to The Gipper throughout the week from Republicans leading up to his birthday. I hope you will join in the Centennial Celebration by signing our birthday card to President Reagan and joining the conversation about keeping his legacy alive.
Except in his name, nothing is done.