This past summer, without near enough coffee and reeling from the effects of deep middle age debauchery (half a bottle of red wine and two bowls of ice cream), I switched on the TV and MSNBC's "Morning Joe". Peggy Noonan (author, political pundit, and former Reagan speechwriter) was taking her turn around the table. She leaned in sympathetically toward Willie and in uber-sincere, monastic tones starting talking about Ronald Reagan. I don't remember what exactly she was talking about, but it certainly was heartfelt - to say she is a Reagan devotee, hagiographer and apologist is an understatement. I don't question her sincerity or intentions one bit. However, I do strongly question the Canonization of her former boss and its profound effect on American electoral politics and debate.
"I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others. On the contrary, we are bound, you, I and everyone to make common cause, even with error itself, to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience. We ought, with one heart and one hand, to hew down the daring and dangerous efforts of those who would seduce the public opinion to substitute itself into the tyranny over religious faith which the laws have so justly abdicated." Thomas Jefferson
Today, on my morning walk, thinking about the current mid-term elections, my brain went back to Peggy Noonan and Morning Joe. I asked my brain; why? My brain then started talking about Jimmy Carter, Jerzy Kosinski, Jerry Falwell, Artists, Joe McCarthy, Che, Glenn Beck, Ralph Reed, Ayn Rand and "Bedtime for Bonzo". I have a very talkative brain. Amazingly, these disparate memories took shape, pretty rapidly, into a single cohesive thought/question: How could a B-Movie actor, who pandered to McCarthyism and Jerry Falwell, become the lionized, sainted man today that probably inspired the current ridiculous cultural/personal/spiritual political theater and allowed people like Ralph Reed to make a living, over a life-time, as lobbyists for Jesus? I certainly don’t have enough time or scholarship to really go into the why. But, with ample help from my impressionistic brain, I will try and lay-out what images my mind has been dishing about all of this. I don’t think Ronald Reagan was intentionally disingenuous or craven - I believe that he was a good man. Yet, in my opinion, he was an appropriated man. He was appropriated by movements and causes that just happened to be powerful forces active in his space in History.
He started out as a Democrat - not a Conservative Icon. After changing parties, he gave a speech, “A time For Choosing”, on numerous occasions in support of Barry Goldwater, during the 1964 Presidential Election. This speech propelled him into the National political spotlight. The speech was predominantly anti-Communist, very Conservative and anti-Progressive. I would like to think that he truly believed completely in the things he spoke of. However, he was an actor – he had recently been the face of General Electric and Boraxo. Interestingly, Barry Goldwater was the contemporary father of Modern Conservatism – so why is it not “Goldwaterism” instead of “Reaganism”? Well, Barry Goldwater was a tough Jewish guy, not; Knute Rockne, All American’s “Gipper”. Goldwater also had a libertarian streak that caused him not to be friendly with folks in Government that wanted to talk about abortion, gay rights, religion, etc. Evidently, as history shows, Reagan and most Conservatives were more than willing to talk of such things and still are. But did Ronald Reagan consciously embrace Catholic ideals or was it political and career expediency, displayed once again, by a relatively simple guy (there has always been something Chauncey Gardner like about Reagan to me), caught in the powerful currents of history? Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan ran smack-dab into the tidal wave that was the 1960’s. American society changed and it changed fast and lots of people were afraid – especially Conservatives. This was the second major Historical Tsunami that Reagan had to swim through – the first was his participation in the HUAC hearings, The Hollywood blacklist and the Communist witch-hunt.
I get the same feeling inside when I see a teenage girl or an idealistic young man moon over the iconic photo of Che Guevara as I do when I see Bill Kristol, Peggy Noonan and other Conservatives moon over the idea of the iconic Ronald Reagan. Most lives have two, really big, defining moments – mine certainly has. For Che, it was when he executed his first political prisoner and when he was executed. The handsome left wing poster boy on the t-shirt was not groovy - he was a very complicated, communist, intellectual ideologue. Was he simply a murderer, as some say, or did he truly and absolutely (albeit delusionally) believe in the creation of a worldwide socialist workers utopia? I think the second and final defining moment in his life also clarifies and defines the first: he chose to go to Bolivia to foment another Communist insurgency and to his death, rather than stay in the relative comfort and safety of Cuba. Whether you think him a saint or a monster - it is pretty clear that he was true to his principles.
I believe the two, really big, defining moments in Ronald Reagan’s life were aligning himself and the Republican Party with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority and selling-out, not supporting, his co-workers and fellow actors as President of the Screen Actors Guild during the witch-hunts of The House Un-American Activities Hearings of the 1940’s and 50’s. As an artist, what pokes my brain when I think about how Reagan acted, as the leader of other artists during the Communist witch-hunts, is a question; was he an artist? No, he was not an artist like Dalton Trumbo, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Zero Mostel and many, many others whose lives were negatively affected by the very un-American, fascist HUAC inquisition. To see the list of lives, careers and families that were affected is shocking – hundreds. To put this in context: it would be like George Cluny being hauled before Congress (simply because he was an actor), everything about him questioned, his career destroyed and Ken Howard (current SAG President) going on the Today Show, supporting the destruction and then the whole thing repeated with a new face…Now I understand why I was thinking about Ayn Rand earlier - she was a friendly witness at the hearings and very anti-Communist as was Ronald Reagan. Ironically, Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’ ( used frequently by Glenn Beck as an anti-government reference) is a cautionary tale about “Big Brother”. Yet, it was “Big Brother” that she was enabling with her testimony and support. There has always been quite a disconnection between the means and the ends of individuals, demagogues, with an axe to grind against others they fear or resent; from Torquemada to Beck. Does Reagan fit into this group? I believe that he does. However, only insofar as he is seen as the anti-Communist, B-Movie actor, President of the Screen Actors Guild (non-artist), standing, wide-eyed, as history carried him along. If you listen to his testimony before the Congressional committee, there is a patriotic sincerity, naivete, that is comforting and reassuring, if you can overlook the context in which it is delivered.
The second, really big, defining moment in Ronald Reagan’s life was pandering to Jerry Falwell and the Christian Right during and after his 1980 election run for President. His choice to do this has had a permanent, discombobulating affect on American politics. Politically Empowering the likes of Falwell and Pat Robertson has severely compromised the ability of this country to have legitimate, informed and rational debate about the First Amendment to the Constitution and it’s significance to a Free people - we now have to endure, ad nauseam, debates about whether Jefferson was a (filthy) Deist, or misunderstood, and saccharine, embarrassing Restore Honor Rallies. To the Reagan creation of this mess – did he believe deeply in the choice that he had made? No, ultimately when it became uncomfortable to have Falwell as a roommate, he cut him loose. Again, he was swept by the tides of History. Unfortunately for America - we’re stuck in the undertow of his choices.
One last comment on one of my original impressions – Jimmy Carter, and his “Malaise” speech. As everyone should know by now, the word “Malaise” never appeared in his original speech. I know, I watched him deliver it on a tattered black and white television on the roof of an old warehouse in Galveston, Texas - I was twenty-two years old and I had waited in line for gasoline the day before. President Carter had something important to say and we should have listened. Instead the country elected Ronald Reagan, we moved on, the solar panels were removed from the roof of the White House and the press and Conservatives concentrated on the diminution of Jimmy Carter and his intelligent, plainspoken prescience.
So, please vote – let’s stop this nonsense. It’s time to put away the Holy Reagan Icons and devotional trinkets.