Tuesday, March 08, 2011

"A Reagan Book for his 100th"

Thank you, Mark Souder. I'm not in the habit of thanking the former representative from the Third District of Indiana, but because of a column he wrote in the Elkhart Truth (“Pick up a Reagan Book for his 100th,” 5 February 2011), I have reason to thank him.

Souder, some of you may remember, was the Christian Right congressman who resigned after the public learned of his affair with a married woman on his staff. He resurfaced last month to urge Elkhartans to read a book about Ronald Reagan to celebrate the centennial of his birth.

Clearly, Souder idolizes Reagan: nearly all of the books he recommends are either hagiographies or extremely sympathetic to their subject. To give Souder credit, he does mention books by Lou Cannon, with the warning, “He does not share Reagan's worldview.”

Had Souder not published his list, I probably would not have reread Reagan's America: Innocents at Home by Garry Wills (Doubleday, 1987). It isn't on Souder's list; not only does Wills not share Reagan's worldview, he argues that it it is not based in reality: “A visit to his past is always a pleasant experience. Visiting Reaganland is is very much like taking children to Disneyland, where they can deal with a New Orleans cut to their measure. It is a safe past, with no sharp edges to stumble against. The more visits one makes to such a past, the better one is any troubling incursions of a real New Orleans, a real racetrack, the real American West.” (p387)
Wills calls the book's first section “Huck Finn's World.” In his autobiography, Reagan calls his childhood “one of those rare Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer idylls.” But Wills reminds us that “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in particular, takes place almost entirely at night, as a series of panicky escapes from one horror to another.” (p7)

Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, just a few miles from my father's hometown of Morrison. While Reagan's family moved many times during his childhood, he regards Dixon—one county over from Morrison—as his boyhood home. Reagan's first regular job was at WOC Radio in Davenport, Iowa. And while I grew up in Iowa City, I married a Davenport girl. So in a sense, Reagan's background parallels my own, though it's separated by some forty years. And while my father, who grew up in the same region as Reagan, voted for Dewey in 1944, but became a liberal Democrat not long afterward. Reagan supported Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, but took a sharp right turn sometime after 1948.

Wills shows how the white settlement of the American Midwest, along with the West, was made possible largely by government: the Hennepin Canal, which benefited Tampico, was a government project. He goes on to remind us that Reagan's father and brother both through the Depression as a result of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

In Davenport, and later in Des Moines, Reagan worked as a sportscaster, transforming telegraphed signals from Chicago Cubs games into play-by-play coverage. And Wills points out that Reagan had spent his entire career as one of the “symbol specialists” Jeane Kirkpatrick attacked in her 1976 book, The New Presidential Elite: Men and Women in National Politics. Reagan went from sportscaster to actor to General Electric spokesman to politician.

“There is nothing wrong with any of these activities,” Wills writes. But it is strange that they should make up the sole background of a hero cheered by critics of mere 'symbol skills.'” (p101)

Wills follows Reagan's Hollywood career from his arrival to his 1942 triumph in Kings Row, to his transition from a movie to a television actor. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan helped engineer an agreement with MCA which allowed the corporation to act both as union representative of television actors an television producer—an obvious conflict of interest.

Reagan, according to Wills, came close to being indicted. Wills believes Reagan just didn't see it as a conflict of interest, but “was always always prepared to think the best of his own bosses.” (p278)

The main premise of Wills's book, though, is that Reagan's America is one of myth—a myth that millions of Americans hold as truth. In his chapter, “Greenfield Village on the Potomac,” Wills writes of Henry Ford's high schools, where students learned from McGuffey's Readers: “Ford kept creating new models of his cars to replace the old, but he would not allow his schools to admit new readers to replace McGuffey's... He could not take his old world with him as he whizzed off in his automobile time machine, which carried him in the wrong direction, forward to the future.” (p374, italics in original)

Reagan's America is one very much defined by Hollywood. Wills points out that the “Wild West” of movies and television is at odds with the real American West of the post-Civil War era:
“...Robert Dykstra, investigating the period of legendary drives through the towns of Kansas, found that places like Dodge City and Abilene averaged only one and a half murders per year, often having nothing to do with cowboys, and usually unconnected with 'shootouts.'” (p89)

In his 1976 primary campaign against Gerald Ford, Reagan repeated a story about a black Navy cook who was stationed at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed: “'He cradled a machine gun in his arms, which is not an easy thing to do, and stood on the end of the pier blazing away at the Japanese airplanes and strafing him and that [segregation] was all changed.'

“Reporters pointed out that segregation [in the military] persisted until Truman abolished it in 1948, three years after the war, but Reagan shook his head and said he did not believe them.” (p165) Wills surmises that he remembered the scene from a movie.

In a movie Wills does not mention, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the old newspaper editor says, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” For Reagan, the legend has become fact. And because the legends are the same ones that Americans have learned from television and the movies, he was able to key into the American psyche in a way that few politicians have: “He is a durable daylight 'bundle of meanings,' as Roland Barthes called myth. Reagan does not not argue for American values, he embodies them.” (p4)

And perhaps the central American value he embodies is one that it is at odds with traditional Christianity: that of original sinlessness:

At one time a woman of unsavory enough experience was delicately but cruelly referred to as “having a past.” The doctrine of original sin states that humankind, in exactly that sense, “has a past.” And much of American thinking has been intended to exempt this country from that stigma. (p384)

Wills contrasts “the doctrine of the Fall” with “the doctrine of the Market:”

Modern capitalism lives by a counter-myth to the Fall of Man—one where benign nature makes everything go, miraculously, right... Individual greeds add up to general gain... Eden was lost by free choice in the Fall of Man. It rises, unbidden, by the automatic engineerings of the Market.

The earlier myth called for a repenting awareness of sin. The later one called for a dutiful innocence and optimism.

Jimmy Carter, though a far more devout and orthodox Christian than Reagan, lost the evangelical Christian vote because he believed in the Fall of Man: “religious voters found that Carter lacked the higher confidence in man, man's products, and America. He talked of limits and self-denial, of tendencies toward aggression even in a sacred or 'saved' nation like America. He believed in original sin.”

Reagan's ability to identify himself with that American counter-myth, Wills argues, is the reason Americans twice elected him to the nation's highest office. More recently, Tea Party activists have accused President Obama of not believing in American exceptionalism. It seems to be a myth that, however untrue, all American politicians must subscribe to. And Reagan articulated the myth better than anyone else.

Reagan, who misquoted John Winthrop's 1630 “city upon a hill” sermon, by adding the adjective “shining” to it, distorted Winthrop's message of caution and turned it into an optimistic declaration of a new Eden. Winthrop uses the line from from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14): “...for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world...,” as a warning to his Puritan followers that their colony would be watched and judged by the world. Reagan's “shining city on a hill” had no such cautionary message; only the shallow optimism of “Morning in America.”

Mark Souder, who, I hope, has repented of his sins, ought to read Reagan's America. And I pray that he and his former lover can repair their respective marriages.