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Monday, June 28, 2004

Our Opinion

Printing the Legend


Facts are stupid things.
— Ronald Reagan

Now that the ritual of deification is over, perhaps some dose of reason can be restored — even if only in droplets — to our national order (although given the current administration, that seems a futile wish). Considering the circumstances of his life — that Hollywood, in other words, was his road to civic engagement and, even more important, that the essence of his politics resided in his, admittedly exceptional, ability to transform parable into public policy — it was strange that only one person saw the (manifest) truth that united past, present, and future in Ronald Reagan’s life. Paul Krugman (who else?) began his column of June 11 (see “An Economic Legend”) in the New York Times by quoting The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. At the end of that canonical American film, John Ford has a young reporter sum up the contradictions of what we now call a nation’s foundation myths (or, as the case may be, its ongoing self-delusions) with the famous lines: “This is the West….When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

John Ford was, of course, a conservative Republican when Ronald Reagan was still a liberal Democrat. But Ford’s vision of America was as clear as those iconic vistas of Monument Valley that he transformed into poignant visual metaphors for his nation. Ford loved his country, but he was never seduced by it (as his art bore out). There have always been two kinds of conservatives: the vast majority that fundamentally fears the world and so retreats into a joyless (and hopeless) blind alley of paranoia and delusional self-preservation; and a tiny minority, which loves the world, genuinely and deeply, but understands the irreducible tragedy of the human condition (social injustice multiplied inescapably by moira) and so refuses to accept the ideological (and facile) consolations of either “progress” or a benign deity.

What made Ronald Reagan unique, as virtually all the pundits commented after his death, was his distinctly un-conservative “optimism.” What the pundits could not do, however, is explain this strange deviation, which is why, among the deluge of commentary that rained on us all week following the late president’s demise, there was nary a branch of sanity to which we could cling to avoid being swept away in the bathetic inundation that flooded the land. In the end, it took a linguist to explain what should have been obvious: that it was because he came of political age in the Hollywood left that Ronald Reagan transformed the American right.

Geoffrey Nunberg is a researcher at Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information and a professor in its linguistics department. Recently, he has also been a commentator for the Sunday New York Times, invariably contributing unusually incisive analyses to its Week in Review. On June 13, Mr. Nunberg explained Mr. Reagan’s “discourse” (see “And, Yes, He Was A Great Communicator,” New York Times): “Mr. Reagan’s adroitness at refashioning the traditional forms of presidential communication stemmed to a large degree from his ability to address the public directly. He learned that language during his years in Hollywood, but it came from sources not usually associated with his political career.” Mr. Nunberg then offers several examples of the Great Communicator’s rhetorical method to show that his ideological wellspring lay significantly farther to the left of even his self-confessed role model, FDR:

Take the concessive phrase “and, yes,” which shows up more than 200 times in the speeches collected at the Reagan Presidential Library: “the ability, dedication, and, yes, patriotism of you here who are her crew”; “the ideas, the muscle, the moral courage and, yes, the spiritual strength that built the greatest, freest nation the world has ever known.

The device suggests a speaker who isn’t ashamed to appeal to sentimentality or stand on simple principle, and obliquely rebukes those who might find expressions of spirituality or patriotism embarrassing….

This isn’t a device people use at their breakfast table (“Pass me the cream and, yes, another bagel.”) Like much of Mr. Reagan’s language, it was a legacy of the left, drawn from the sentimental populism of the movies and plays of the 1930s and 1940s….

That’s where Mr. Reagan acquired his predilection for polysyndeton, the rhetorical term for the piling on of “and” and “or”: “We’ve come to Hammonton, just as we went to Elizabeth and Hoboken and Doylestown and Buffalo and Endicott and Waterbury, because you’re what America is all about.” Or, “Here in Wyoming, back where your farmers and ranchers and workers and small-business people dream big and toil hard to make dreams come true.”

Those rolling conjunctions evoke the pattern that writers of the 30s and 40s used when they wanted to evoke the artless effusions of the common man. You hear Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life”: “Your money’s in Joe’s house…and in the Kennedy house, and in Mrs. Macklin’s house and a hundred others.” And, “Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.”

…Mr. Reagan’s models are out of reach for us. We make allowances for his rhetoric in the same way we make allowances for Frank Capra’s, as natural for its age. But nobody can make movies like those anymore.

That’s for sure. And we’re all profoundly poorer, in every possible way, for the loss — or, rather, for the refusal.

So, what’s the point? Obviously, that the left — at least in the United States and such as it ever was — has nobody to blame for its pathetic disintegration but itself. It was once culturally hegemonic; so much so, in fact, that the man who rearticulated and reconstructed postwar American conservatism appropriated its rhetorical and — more critically — emotional and existential power and made them his own, and those of his followers. If anyone has any doubts about that, just consider Barry Goldwater or, to mention an equally dominant (and dominating) contemporary of Mr. Reagan, Margaret Thatcher. One doesn’t need to be a devotee of either to acknowledge certain undeniable characteristics in both the senator from Arizona and the British prime minister: acute (and stubborn) intellect, unflinching principle (and inexorable political logic and purpose), personal integrity (and intolerance of any definition of politics as exchange), determination, frankness, and, therefore — because of all of the above — an abhorrence of consensus in public life. “In your heart you know he’s right,” Barry Goldwater’s campaign slogan proclaimed in the 1964 election. Well, yes, we did — which was why he ended up with a mere 39 percent of the vote, in a landslide for LBJ that buried the Arizonan’s presidential aspirations forever. The once and future Iron Lady was much more direct — distinctly Thatcherite, one could say — in her successful 1979 campaign slogan: “Labour Isn’t Working.” In the event, one could hardly confuse either Mr. Goldwater’s missionary appeal or Lady Thatcher’s Stakhanovite accusation as “optimistic.”

And then there was Ronald Reagan: “Let’s Make America Great Again,” he asked of his fellow citizens in 1980. Notice the contracted “us” following the voluntary and anything-but-imperative “Let”; most of all, notice the “again.” Mr. Reagan’s entreaty went well beyond Clintonite gestures of rhetorical (and elitist) “sharing the pain.” It implicitly, if very clearly, invoked a common past of struggle and achievement. Indeed, it verged on a veritable sense of…solidarity. Talk about conjuring up the phantom of FDR. And, yes, while Star Wars and Pershing- and cruise-missiles in Europe and contras and Salvadoran death squads and Sabra and Shatila and “constructive engagement” in South Africa and thousands of Iranians and Kurds gassed by Saddam Hussein and — just to bring it back home — tens of thousands of men and women dying of AIDS from sea to shining sea, might have made it all seem as if the White House were presiding over darkness at noon, it was morning again in America. What else could it possibly have been under the Gipper?

But, of course, the Gipper was right. We know that Mr. Reagan saw Patton as soon as the movie came out in 1970. Surely, he remembered the scene in which George C. Scott, echoing Frederick the Great’s apothegmatic rule of military victory, exclaims, with existential élan, “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace.” By 1970, the Gipper had been governor of California for four years and had already proved that audacity is the mother of reinvention.

And that the truly audacious are attended by fortune. Although he had become, by his second term in office, the first president since the onset of the Cold War not to conclude an arms agreement with the Soviets, Mr. Reagan was saved, in the nick of time, by the man who came out of the East to save the West (and everybody else). As someone who had played in a passel of oaters himself, Mr. Reagan undoubtedly recognized the formula. “Somebody’s comin’, Pa,” the little boy says warily to his father as he follows the mysterious rider trotting ever closer on their Wyoming homestead; “Call me Shane,” the Cid in fringed buckskin will ultimately tell the boy and his parents. More than 30 years later, in 1985, after Mr. Reagan took the oath of office for his second term, Shane would morph into “the Preacher” in Pale Rider, the reprise of this fundamental narrative of salvation made by Clint Eastwood (a fervent supporter of Mr. Reagan); indeed, in that very same year, the Man from the East entered into our collective consciousness when he became the new — and last — head of the Soviet Union.

We called him Gorby, and he saved Ronald Wilson Reagan’s presidency. More to the point, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev saved the world — at least from the singular, omnicidal threat we all faced in the postwar era. (While the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is trying to bring the world back to the brink, we hope he is too dim-witted to succeed, but one should never discount the brutal combination of power and a mean spirit.) Mr. Reagan was rightly eulogized this month for his, often self-deprecating, humor; what are we to make of a man, however, whose earth-shattering (and wall-collapsing) decision to restore the independence of eastern Europe was dubbed by his own foreign minister as the “Sinatra Doctrine”? Under the circumstances, it is instructive (and more than a bit bone-chilling) to reflect on how philosophically similar the Brezhnev Doctrine — “When forces…hostile to socialism…try to turn…some socialist country toward capitalism, it becomes…a common problem…of all socialist countries” — enunciated by the Ultimate Soviet Dinosaur himself (as he was destroying the Czechoslovak communist party and raping Czechoslovakia), was to the Reagan Doctrine, which the president formulated in his State of the Union address in 1985: “We must not break faith with those who…on every continent…defy Soviet aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth. Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.” (We all realized a long time ago, naturally, that, for the man who referred to Osama bin Laden and his fellows in Afghanistan as “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers,” the notion of “freedom fighter” was elastic at best.)

Ron Reagan, the president’s son, said last week to NBC’s Chris Matthews that he hesitated to consider his father’s “legacy” and preferred to let history judge. It was a thoughtful reluctance. “Winner” of the Cold War? Slayer of the Soviet dragon? Like Ron Reagan, we’ll wait for history’s judgment. We suspect, however, that historians in a more disinterested and calmer time than our own will point to the sheer resolve and moral courage it took for Mikhail Gorbachev to let everyone in the world, from Kandahar to Cracow to Kiev to Camagüey, do it their way — even if it entailed the self-extinction of his own country. Especially after the wars of the Yugoslav succession, we also believe that future historians will conclude that, while the Soviet Union might have been doomed as a society, the deathwatch could undoubtedly have been much more drawn out (possibly by decades) and much bloodier, both inside and outside its borders, had it not been for the man whose brief, six-year tenure as head of the Soviet state was even more definitive than that of Lenin. Even Ronald Reagan recognized that fact. On his trip to the Soviet Union in the last year of his presidency, in a walkabout around Moscow with Mr. Gorbachev, a reporter asked Mr. Reagan if he still thought the Soviet leader was presiding over an “evil empire.” “No,” the Gipper replied, “I was talking about another time, another era.”

Now, of course, we face a painful (and unsettling) truth: many (most?) people around the world believe that the empire — maybe not so evil but imperial nonetheless — has struck back, changing its standard from red to red-white-and-blue in the interregnum. Under the circumstances, if there’s a lesson to draw from the blockbuster production of Ronald Reagan’s life for those of us who still believe in the Republic into which he and we were born (but which now seems to be slipping into the same cruel incapacity and disconnection from which he suffered in the last years of his life), it is that politics are never, ever as critical to the direction of public life as is moral suasion. Mr. Reagan beat the left in the “battle of ideas” (to use one of Fidel Castro’s pet expressions) and through sheer tenacity. He stuck to his foundations while the left slipped and slid, and ended up on its knees with…Bill Clinton. Mr. Reagan famously said 40 years ago — and repeated throughout the rest of his public life — that if you sit back and hope that somebody else will make things right, all you’re doing is “feeding the crocodile, hoping he will eat you last.” Well, the crocodile’s in the White House and his appetite is insatiable.

Tom Carson, the cultural critic and novelist, wrote in the Village Voice last week (June 9-15) that Ronald Reagan, “like no other American, deserves the honor of being the first person embalmed at Disneyland.” He went on to write that, “In the true capital of his America, one-upping Lenin in death as he did in life, he could lie in a glass box before Sleeping Beauty’s castle — midway between Frontierland and Tomorrowland….” Putting aside Mr. Carson’s sardonic tone, we confess that the image of a totemic Mr. Reagan lying halfway between our mythical past and our delirious future, as early twenty-first-century America’s idol (and idyll) of self-definition, is an arresting, and apposite, one. Still, while we know what the facts are in Mr. Reagan’s case, we will, as we said, let the historians sort them out and counter the reigning theology. We just wish there were someone on our side who was capable of being printed up with the same legendary panache — and popular conviction — as the Gipper. (Are you listening, John Kerry?) But, like the man said, they just don’t make movies like that anymore.

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