As perhaps you've heard, Ronald Reagan would have turned one hundred this Sunday. If he was still alive and sentient, he would surely observe that he's not really so old because "It's just the 61st anniversary of my 39th birthday," and the reporters who would be there when he said it would dutifully laugh at this annually-trotted-out platitude as if it were wit worthy of Noel Coward.
There is about to be a tsunami of reverence for the memory of this grinning huckster for the avaricious, the corrupt and the callous, and it will be aided and abetted by the same media that bent over so eagerly the first time around. Throughout this centennial year we will be routinely told, as if it was a universally accepted truth, how great he was. Every candidate for the Republican presidential nomination will relentlessly invoke his name. Some crackpot will get hours of time on cable news with his -- or, these days, more likely her -- campaign to finally get Reagan on Mt. Rushmore where he belongs, with his equals Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. And yet, what is most frequently cited as the source of his alleged greatness really boils down to his having been able to make a significant number of gullible Americans feel good about themselves while not giving a damn about anyone else.
I've always thought of him as a God-awful actor -- that is, if we define a good actor as someone who can convincingly portray recognizable emotions. It turned out, though, that America -- after the coarseness of Johnson, the darkness of Nixon, the awkwardness of Ford and the piousness of Carter -- was happier with Reagan's genuine fakeness. People who don't think too much about politics were just glad to see someone as president who could at least play the part, however lazily and unsubtly. But, as Gore Vidal said at the time, "The pollsters' questions are so dumb: 'Do you find him a nice old thing who makes you feel good when he honks away on the box?' 'Yes, he's a nice old thing who makes me feel good when he honks away on the box.' Well, that isn't an endorsement of war in Nicaragua."
Bush and Cheney, of course, were more obviously awful -- the beady-eyed schoolyard bully and Dr. Strangelove. But it was Reagan -- sunny, head-waggling, unthreatening Ronald Reagan -- who made their disastrous reign possible by appointing three of the five Supreme Court Justices who put them in power. Reagan is the godfather to the bitterly regressive party of shameless greed, unabashed bigotry, proud ignorance, shrieking hypocrisy, and brazen disregard -- no, contempt -- for truth and law that the Republicans have become. Wherever you look, he was there first.
Are the House Republicans attempting to define rape down? Reagan tried to get ketchup classified as a bona fide vegetable in school lunches. Does Sarah Palin write crib notes on her hands? Reagan peeked at index cards that had even his small talk scripted. Did Bush preside over the obscene transfer of money from the poor to the rich that led to the destruction of the U.S. economy? Reagan set in motion the across-the-board deregulation that caused it.
His ethically challenged counselor (and later widely investigated attorney general), Ed Meese, claimed that the poor actually had money and just went to soup kitchens "because the food is free and that's easier than paying for it." His Secretary of the Interior, James ("We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber") Watt, was unconcerned about conservation because he wasn't sure "how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns." His chief of staff, Donald Regan, when asked if it wasn't hypocritical to tell other nations not to sell arms to Iran while we did just that, explained, "Hypocrisy is a question of degree."
For anyone who wasn't alive or politically aware during the Reagan years and has any curiosity about them, I wrote a book in 1989 that conveys, on a day-by-day basis, what it was surreally like. The title, The Clothes Have No Emperor, addressed the perception that the president was an empty suit -- an observation that, inconvenient and therefore unpopular as it was, was far from mine alone. No less an expert than Edmund Morris, author of the brilliantly definitive Reagan biography Dutch, articulated this insight most eloquently to a group of fellow historians while he was still struggling, after many years of studying him, to comprehend his subject. "Ronald Reagan," he said, "is a man of benign remoteness and no psychological curiosity, either about himself or others. He considers his life to have been unremarkable. He gives nothing of himself to intimates (if one can use such a noun in such a phrase), believing that he has no self to give. In the White House he wrote hundreds of personal letters, and obediently kept an eight-year diary, but the handwritten sentences, while graceful and grammatical (never an erasure, never a flaw of spelling or punctuation!) are about as revelatory of the man behind them as the calligraphy of a copyist."
The Clothes Have No Emperor has been out of print for twenty years, but the cacophony of hosannas we are about to be subjected to provided me (and my wife, Liz Dubelman, who has the e-publishing company VidLit Press) with the perfect excuse to bring it back as an e-book and try to combat the notion of Ronald Reagan as some mythic leader with an alternate version of his presidency that I like to call reality. I had the luxury that few writers do of revisiting something I wrote decades ago and taking another pass at it, cutting and sharpening it with the benefit of hindsight while mainly finding, to my immense relief, that most of it was still fine just the way it was. Plus, I got to replace the original cover (which I'd always hated) with a classic image generously shared by the pre-eminent art attacker Robbie Conal, whose take-no-prisoners style of political portraiture got its start with Reagan.
So it turns out, as seems cosmically appropriate given that the subject here was essentially a salesman, that this post has all been kind of a commercial. The book is available here at an "it's-up-to-you" price point, like that Radiohead download. You can have it for a penny if you want, but do keep in mind what hard work it is maintaining a memory for a nation addicted to amnesia.
Oh, and starting on Sunday I'll be posting an item from the book on Facebook every day until I get tired of doing it. So, to paraphrase Alice Roosevelt Longworth, if you haven't got anything good to say about Ronald Reagan, come be my friend.