The Reagan Centennial

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By Michael P. Riccards

Ronald Reagan led the charmed life of a handsome, personable, small town boy who progressed from being a sports announcer to a movie star to the leader of a visible labor union to a citizen politician in the most populous state in the Union and finally President of the United States.

Reagan was the son of a strong-willed mother and an alcoholic father who was intensely committed to the Democratic party. For most of his early years, he was an admirer of the liberal New Deal and the towering presence of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, he insisted on linking his conservative administration and his own attitudes to the life and times of FDR. Characteristically, his use of television and radio was patterned on Roosevelt’s own immensely successful radio addresses to the people.

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It has been fashionable to belittle Reagan’s abilities as an actor, but he was one of the most popular movie figures of his era. With some pride, he has called himself the “Errol Flynn of the B movies.” After World War II, however, his career began to flounder, and he headed up the Screen Actors Guild and defended performers before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee, upholding publicly their civil liberties, while secretly serving as an occasional informant for the FBI. Reagan developed a deep fear of Communists, whom he claimed had targeted him for elimination during this period because of his opposition to their feeble attempts to infiltrate the movie industry. Ironically, he had unknowingly flirted with Communist fellow traveler organizations and was seen by some as a rather extreme New Deal liberal.

From his union presidency, Reagan went on to host a television series and became a spokesman for General Electric. Reagan started giving uplifting quasi-political speeches for that company and gravitated toward the conservative orbit of his second wife and his new father-in-law. He also came to the attention of a small group of very wealthy Californians who supported him financially and calculated that he could become governor of their state and then president of the United States. They were correct, as Reagan in 1980 rode to a landslide victory, becoming the nation’s fortieth president.

Unlike some other conservative politicians, Reagan was able to fuse traditional small town Republicans on Main Street with Wall Street operatives and religious fundamentalists– many of the last group once Democrats like himself.

By 1980 large segments of the population felt threatened by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The changing role of women, the new legal rights of racial minorities, the open advocacy in some quarters of easy sex and drugs, and the breakdown of middle class family morality upset a good number of moderate voters. The backlash against the civil rights bills ended once and for all the Democratic hegemony over white voters in the South, as Lyndon Johnson had predicted when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And as civil rights moved from the heady days of the 1960s toward affirmative action, protected categories of people, and goals for preferential hiring, white resistance began coalescing.

In addition, some of the large generational cohort born in the late 1940s challenged the mores of their parents and of postwar American society. That 20-year span, starting in the 1960s, led to greater self-expression, creativity, and social reform, and it also led to hedonism, self-righteousness, and crude individualism.

It is ironic that the first television president and the first divorced president, whose own family life with his children was strained, should have become the bearer of the flag of the old values. It is odd that the strongest advocate of a war-centered patriotism should be a man whose military career involved only making training films in California while other men fought and died in Anzio, Omaha Beach, and Guadalcanal.

But what was even more remarkable was that Ronald Reagan was never troubled by the gap between his life and his rhetorical descriptions of it. He could urge that the federal government stamp out social welfare programs and let private philanthropy take its place, while he himself was at best a modest giver to charities. He could describe in vivid detail the sacrifices of World War II veterans at Normandy as if he were there himself, explaining once that he frequently visualized as real what were fictional occurrences.

But those blurrings between reality and make-believe did not matter, for the American people had become a television generation, and many of them lived for images and judged their political leaders accordingly. Yet as far as Reagan was concerned, he was pleased as always with himself, recalling once again that, in his vocabulary, politics is like acting: You start quickly, coast a bit, and end with a fast finish.

Michael P. Riccards is executive director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy. Riccards is a presidential scholar who has authored 15 books, including The Ferocious Engine of Democracy, a two-volume history of the American presidency.


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