“He is wrong in his policy. He’s causing us continuous harm. He’s flubbed everything along the line. He’s got a million people marching against us in Europe. He has no knowledge or no talent of the things that are happening out there. He only works three to three and a half hours a day. He doesn’t do his homework. He doesn’t read his briefing papers. It’s sinful that this man is the president of the United States. He will be 73 years old in a matter of days. I don’t think he can win. He’s hurt 70 million people. He’s hurt so many people out there. He could quit tomorrow and [Nancy] could be the queen of Beverly Hills.”
- Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House of Representatives; 1983
Ronald Wilson Reagan was an actor, a spokesman, an actor, a governor, an actor, a president, an actor and the intellectual father of the modern American conservative movement. For all the Karl Roves, Grover Norquists and Chuck & Dave Kochs out there–with their tentacles spread far and wide over the smoldering wasteland of the Republican psyche–they are as nothing compared to the mighty Gipper. These hot-shot power-brokers, so influential in today’s political climate of big money and little else, might as well be the modern incarnations of the Wizard of Oz, and the Gipper is the “man behind the curtain.“
So many of the causes that Reagan threw himself behind, “body and soul,” had the odd knack of solidifying into the assumed cornerstones of a new and very different self-proclaimed center-right nation. By the time he and his wife Nancy, an actress-turned-fashionista who had convinced herself that the nation’s explosive drug epidemic could be explained away by the three simple words “Just Say No,” had strolled onto the scene at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. from the lavish Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento, the Republican presidential image was seriously in need of a makeover. From Dick Nixon’s–and what a Dick he was–extralegal campaign exploits in the infamous 1972 Watergate Scandal (approval ratings bottomed out to a round 20 percent) to Gerald Ford’s–the “sitting, though unelected” president who bested Reagan in ’76–perceived soft-on-communism policy of détente (approval ratings barely broke 50 percent throughout his incumbency), the perception of a red White House left a sour taste in most Americans’ mouthes. Not since war-hero Dwight D. Eisenhower’s days as president in the euphoria of post-World War II America had the GOP elected a candidate that a sweeping majority of the American body politic actually liked.
Equipped with his fatherly smile and winning actor’s charm, Reagan aimed to change all that. His primary concern in office was to revamp the image he was saddled with upon his inauguration in 1981 and to give the people, for the first time in a long time, a Republican president that they could finally be proud of. Indeed, the Gipper settled into his new home at the White House with a 20-year chip on his shoulder. And, as Nancy dearest was fussing about sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of renovations into the place, America’s new actor president found he had a knack for repairing his party’s broken image. With approval ratings soaring to the mid-sixties in his heyday–a degree of public confidence unseen since LBJ established Medicare and signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965–the Gipper certainly shook things up during his tenure in office.
But for all the unwitting American voters he was able to win over while in office, the grand irony here is that Reagan’s unprecedented veneration largely set in posthumously. Sure, the people loved him while he was out on the stump howling about imaginary welfare queens and godless, soul-enslaving commies breathing down the necks of freedom-loving Americans, but they loved him even more just a few thin Reagan-worshiping generations later. To the modern conservative’s mind, Reagan’s arsenal of supposed remedies to the nation’s economic woes, national security shortfalls and burgeoning drug-related social problems (crack-cocaine had just begun to rear its ugly and hopelessly-addictive head in those days…just say no?) might as well be a drum-magazine packed to the brim with silver bullets for all of the left’s arguments. The Gipper lives on to this day, more radically and irrefutably omniscient then ever, as the far-right’s standard-bearer and ideological champion. Simply put, “Reagan–[The Great Communicator]–transformed the American presidency in ways that only a few have been able to,” and his influence does not so much linger to this day as it abounds. Fully 89 percent of Americans polled this year expressed a positive attitude toward the Gipper’s two-term stint in office and, more significantly, he topped CBS’s 2009 poll on the greatest presidents in U.S. history–trumping FDR, Honest Abe and America’s favored son JFK.
This is a problem.
It is one thing to laud some icon or another as the undisputed forefather of your party–both sides pick favorites: blue-blooded lefties’ Clinton-worship admittedly sickens me when I think about his spineless (mis)management of the Bosnian crisis and others–but what about when that chosen demigod has proven himself wholly and consistently incompetent? Where does that leave you? Well, it leaves you in the Republican Party throughout the ’90s, ’00s and ’10s. In no way, shape or form is Ronald Wilson Reagan cracked up to lead a movement that has and will continue to hold political sway for generations to come. The Gipper, for all his xenophobic candor, perennial cultural ignorance, and sustained forthright evasion of Constitutional prerogative, is singularly unfit for the momentously consequential duty of intergenerational Republican flag-bearer. But, alas, this is indeed the posture at which he finds himself posthumously helmed to this day. You see, Reagan–America’s Actor in Chief–was never cracked up to be the fundamental brick-layer of the new era of American conservatism, but he sure could act the part.
Note: “ReaganRebooted” is a six-part OpEducation series that navigates the extensive trail of Reagan Administration faux pas that live on to this day in the form of bumbling, blustering Republican policy.
Edit: Still not convinced? Get convinced.