Saturday, February 05, 2011

Reagan's Super Bowl Birthday

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.

The actor who became President, 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 Ronald Reagan's star power was a good fit for the 1980s, sandwiched between the clueless tenure of Jimmy Carter and that of George H. W. Bush, said to remind every woman of her first husband and, by his own admission, not good with "the vision thing."

Reagan had that in abundance for an era when Americans wanted a showman in the White House and could afford to have one there. As the Tea Party revs up its rhetoric now, it would be good to have him still with us, telling them, "There you go again."

Update: Sarah Palin, who also started as a sportscaster, auditions for a 21st century remake of "The Reagan Story" while modestly denying any interest in the role.

"Today there are a lot of people looking around for the next Ronald Reagan," she tells the centennial dinner at the Reagan Ranch center, "but he was one of a kind and you are not going to find his kind again. And the Gipper wouldn't want us to spend our time on that anyway."

She's probably right. The original spent decades in Hollywood learning his craft and, when elected governor of California, served out all eight years of his two terms. They used to call that paying your dues, not raking in your due on Rupert Murdoch's payroll.


Anonymous said...

The older I get the main thing I remember about Ronald Reagan is that he cut my wife's social security benefits. This was because she was eligible for both social security and a pitiful civil service. The GPO/WEP laws not only emasculated her social security benefit, it prevented her from ever hoping to get mt survivor benefit when I finally cash in. Do you remember hearing about those changes while the Great Communicator was in office? We don't.

Yellow Dog Don said...

Say something good about the dead. He's dead, good.

James M. Martin said...

Forget Ronnie's anti-social benefit cutting, look to the foundations of the myth (e.g. fall of Berlin Wall, which was inevitable and possibly at Gorby's suggestion) and the criminality of his regime. While North was negotiating guns for hostages in the White House basement, Reagan was telling Iran-Contra lawsuit lawyers he did not remember anything about it -- about 30 times. North said Reagan knew all about it, and who are we to question the word of a Fox News commentator? Reagan called North a liar. The possibilities are only three: Reagan did not know, in which case he was incompetent; he knew but actually forgot (had Alzheimer's already set in?), or he knew because he approved, in which case he was a common criminal. The conservatives are elevating Ronnie to the Second Coming of Jebus Crust. Don't fall for it, folks.

Anonymous said...

I remember back in 1980 seeing two Soviet movies, "Oblomov" and "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears", and thinking that the worst of the cold war was over. There was a lot less tension on the nuclear front and the Soviet Union seemed more amenable to dialog with the west. Then Reagan got in and all that changed and we were once again immersed in 1950's and 60's nuclear hysteria. The 80's was a dismal era, which heralded the ascent of greed, arrogance, and cynical indifference in the American body politic.

Garry said...

It's a pity that presidents these days are not made out of the same material.....

Unknown said...

"and, when elected governor of California, served out all eight years of his two terms. They used to call that paying your dues..."

Yeah. Some people might call it that, if wanting to make Caribou Barbie look worse.

We who had the misfortune to be living in California when Ronnie Ray-gun began the dismantling of higher education and care for the mentally ill in our fair state and oversaw the enthronement of the 'taxpayers' revolt' called it living in Hell.