|RONALD REAGAN: NOT JUST THE PRESIDENT, PLAYED ONE ON TV.|
In the two days of endless media pontification on the death of former President Ronald Reagan, a cursory Lexis/Nexis search reveals the phrase -- or a variation thereof -- "most influential American president" 39 times. This classification sounds like hyperbole. It is not. Ronald Reagan changed the way our entire culture was structured, what we valued, what we looked for in not just our leaders, but in everything, from celebrities to co-workers to spouses. Through his skills as an actor, as a empty charismatic chasm we filled with whatever we wanted to believe, Ronald Reagan made it OK to be incompetent as long as you did it with a smile and with charm.
Whenever a President dies, the news channels do us all a favor and rerun clips of famous speeches, like Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" or "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" (It's a shame, though, that we couldn't see Nancy Reagan's infamous appearance on "Different Strokes" or hear Reagan's dunderheaded radio flub, when he jokingly announced -- not knowing he was on air -- that "I have signed legislation that outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.") What's most amazing, watching these clips 20 years later, is how appealing Reagan really is. He was an unusually gifted public speaker, warm, comfortable, like the cool grandfather who would find quarters behind your ears. I was five years old when Reagan was elected, and I loved him. I remember once telling my father, a staunch union man and no fan of Reagan, how I couldn't wait to be old enough to vote so I could vote for Reagan. (My father smirked and told me, "Yeah, you'll love Dutch when the BOMBS ARE FALLING!" I don't believe I slept well that night.)
People often say television first established its impending cultural dominance during the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, when the young Kennedy looked handsome and presidential while Nixon looked sweaty, nervous and shifty. (Of all people!) But Reagan was the true benefactor of television. He displayed a frighteningly lack of comprehension of the most basic issues and actually only became a Republican out of pragmatism, seeing an opening in the California governor's race and changing his party affiliation accordingly, much like Michael Bloomberg did in the New York City mayoral race three years ago. But if Reagan could do anything, he could play the role of President. He could portray exactly what we wanted our Presidents to be, and he could do it consistently and to a mass audience. That he was actually a horrible, clueless opportunist who plunged our nation into staggering amounts of debt while exasperating problems of race and class to dangerous levels, that's all kind of beside the point. He looked like a President, and for the first time, that's all that mattered. Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale never stood a chance, in the same way Bob Dole never stood a chance against Bill Clinton; we liked Reagan, which made us like ourselves, which is all we ever want, really.
Say what you will about Kennedy, or Nixon, or Ford, or Carter, but they came from a time when qualified men paid their dues, studied public policy and went though the political ringer before ever taking office. You might have disagreed with them, you might have found them morally lacking, but you couldn't deny that they knew what they were talking about. They were coming from a base of knowledge. Reagan changed all that too. What's most amusing about Reagan's presidency is that people loved him even though, on the whole, no one really thought he had much idea what he was talking about most of the time. He was seen as overly reliant on handlers and aides, and easily pliable. It didn't matter that, deep down, people didn't think he was qualified for the job; he was comforting on television, and heck, I'm sure someone in Washington is making sure the car doesn't get too far off the road, right? That was enough. It has been enough since. People certainly seem to think it's enough now.
That Reagan is the spiritual forefather of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is a given, and obvious. But his influence is felt everywhere. You don't actually have to have accomplished anything to be successful and beloved anymore. You just have to be famous, and good on TV. You see it when Maxim models are anchoring newscasts, or when Survivor castaways are awarded honorary degrees, or when a lousy baseball owner, former drunk and family black sheep is able, lacking even the most rudimentary qualifications, to stumble his way into the most powerful position on the planet because, you know, he seems like the type of guy you'd want to have a beer with. (Or, at least he did when we elected him. Well, kind of elected him.) And you see it when he has done just about everything you can possibly do wrong in four years, and then found some new things to do wrong, and he's still even in the polls, because his opponent is awkward around cameras and looks vaguely French.
Was Ronald Reagan a good man? A bad man? Does anyone even know? Does it even matter? Notions of strong, civic-minded leaders guiding the nation though force of spirit and courage, these are so outdated and quaint now that we don't even believe them on The West Wing anymore. Now we just get people who are upwardly mobile and self-promotional, from every industry from politics to economics to entertainment to athletics. Were people like that before Reagan? Of course. But with him, it was institutionalized, ingrained into our public consciousness. Qualifications be damned; entertain us, make us feel better. Just look like you know what you're doing. This is what we want.
Ronald Reagan made the general public just not care that much anymore. That's his legacy, and it's the one he takes with him to his grave. Ronald Reagan is gone, but his offspring are everywhere. This is what you asked for, America, and this is what you deserve.
Will Leitch is the managing editor of The Black Table. His book, Life
as a Loser, is available through Amazon.com.