07/25/2011 10:22 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

Still Crazy After All These Years: The Reagan Legacy and the Debt Ceiling "Crisis"

Ronald Reagan was anointed The Great Communicator on August 2nd, 1981. This was a surprise for a lot of people who had been watching the president's performance on the news every night, but not a complete shock. It was yet another moment of cultural whiplash in a year chock-full of them.

Lou Cannon of The Washington Post was the first to refer to Reagan as the "Great Communicator" in print, giving Orwellian punctuation to a summer when American culture turned itself inside out, when economic supply and demand traded places, music became a visual medium, "B" movies became "A" movies and Jeff Koons became famous. Cannon's piece was the kind of myth-making gesture that Reagan himself specialized in, the kind that, when repeated enough, could become a whole new truth, whether it was true or not. It represented a kind of triumph, not merely of one political party over another, but of style over substance, self-aggrandizement over self reflection, "reality" over reality. It was a declaration that the laws of political physics no longer applied.

The break with reality Cannon's piece represented unleashed the endless stream of self-manufactured crises that have defined our political culture: the Clinton impeachment, the Iraq War, the financial meltdown. And now, in a stroke of poetic coincidence, the debt-ceiling crisis, careening towards a "drop-dead date" and possible catastrophe, exactly thirty years later.

Here's The Great Communicator, in a not-atypical response to a reporter's question at a presidential press conference:

The problem is the deficit is -- or should I say -- wait a minute, the spending, I should say, of gross national product, forgive me -- the spending is roughly 23 to 24 per cent. So that it is in -- it what is increasing while the revenues are staying proportionately the same and what would be the proper amount they should, that we should be taking from the private sector.

To be fair, the question he was answering had to do with tax policy, and by the time it was asked, in 1987, Reagan's lack of consistency on the issue over the years had been so chronic and acute (his '81 tax cut was followed quickly by two huge increases, for instance) that it made lucid discussion of it virtually impossible.

And in any case, Reagan and his staff, most especially P.R. guru Michael Deaver, never cared much for consistency. They regarded it as the hobgoblin of bigger minds, an obsolete vestige of an era when politics enabled policy, instead of the other way around.

Among the harbingers of a new era in the summer of 1981 were the passing of Reagan's signature tax cuts, the introduction of the first "PC", the debuts of MTV and Entertainment Tonight, the firing of thousands of striking air-traffic controllers by the president, his hiring of Oliver North, and, perhaps most important, the beginning of daily network television coverage of White House "messaging."

In August of 1981, Michael Deaver started inviting the national media to daily appearances by the president, usually in the Rose Garden or some other picturesque White House venue, at which Reagan would deliver very brief, scripted remarks articulating what Deaver called the "message of the day," a message that often had nothing at all to do with the actual, immediate concerns of Washington or the American public, and that often relied on a very fuzzy conception of "facts." But the strategy worked. It quickly closed that gap between what people had been talking about and what the Administration wanted them to talk about. It delivered a steady diet of fantasy directly to the public, and eventually aligned their version of reality with Reagan's.

Reagan now occupied a constantly evolving, revisionist present, where he was able to make a virtue of his knack for amiable amnesia and blithely dismiss "misstatements" with a calculated twinkle in his eye. He made his performance as president -- the projection of an avuncular demeanor and "presidential" bearing -- into the point of his presidency.

And the press cooperated by judging the administration on its own terms.

The media were going through a crucible moment of their own in 1981. The success of People Magazine and its ilk was exerting a strong pull in national newsrooms. On September 14th, 1981 Entertainment Tonight went on the air on and quickly beget an entire industry devoted to the parsing of box-office totals and fashion choices. Interviews with actors and directors focused on deal-making and career trajectories, and the word infotainment entered the lexicon.The editors of "serious" magazines and newspapers took notice. They seized on the Reagan Administration's polished, sound-bite-ready, daily messaging as an opportunity to stay culturally relevant, and began to cover politics as popular entertainment. Soon after Reagan began his messaging strategy, the Washington Post began publishing, for the first time, daily dispatches from the White House, regardless of whether or not the president had anything newsworthy to say.

There was no internet in 1981, but CNN had gone on the air the summer before, Walter Cronkite had retired in March, and once IBM introduced its first PC (and Microsoft its first operating system) on August 12th, all the conditions were in place to drastically speed up the news cycle and further shrink the public attention span. Reagan, no fan of attention-paying, instinctively understood how to use the new media reality to deftly change the subject of national conversations. It must have been an exciting time for a White House that relentlessly championed form over function. It was at the center of an unprecedented symbiosis between politics and culture, one that would make their policy goals much easier to achieve.

The new Reagan Administration's ethos and aesthetics influenced, and were influenced by, a popular culture that was itself going through fundamental change. MTV hadn't been on the air for more than a few weeks before its fast-paced style was being mimicked in commercials, and then movies. Long film takes and songs and magazine articles were turned into instant artifacts, anything that smacked of the contemplative or the adult was marginalized, and a tsunami of kitsch flooded the culture. Movies or television shows that aspired to topicality or realism had an especially tough time finding an audience. The era of Dog Day Afternoon and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was over; the caviar days and champagne nights of Dynasty and the Material Girl had arrived.

The top ten television shows of 1975 were, in order, All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man, The Jeffersons, MASH, Rhoda, The Waltons, Good Times, Maude and Hawaii Five-O. If you're too young to remember them you should look up images of the people who starred in those series, people like Esther Rolle and Bill Macy. You might notice that almost all of them look suspiciously like actual people, human beings, with medical histories and memories and digestive systems. And if you look up 1985's top shows you might notice that this is very much not the case for the stars of Dynasty, Dallas, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, The A-Team, Simon & Simon, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest. You'll see a gallery of the kind of faces we're now used to seeing on TV, the ones that look like they're assembled in face factories and shipped to Hollywood in bubble-wrap.

That was the face Reagan's America loved, the kind that asked nothing of its audience, and it was the face his White House presented to the public. The Reagan's cultivated an untroubled, opulent, Dynasty-like style that celebrated conspicuous consumption. Despite all his time on horseback, Reagan was a man of affect, not action, and he inspired a culture of apathy, entitlement and greed. It's no coincidence that Eric Cantor, the current Republican leader most vehemently opposed to including any tax increases in a debt-ceiling deal, graduated high school in the summer of 1981, and that his yearbook quote was, "I want what I want when I want it."

There were always essentially two Reagan Administrations -- The Reagan Show, starring America's endearingly addled, yet decent Uncle-in-Chief -- and the one in which a much less visible, much more ruthless Reagan ignored the raging AIDS plague, de-funded much of America's safety net, nominated candidates to run agencies whose missions they opposed, fired 11,000 air traffic controllers and decertified their union, increased the number of American families living in poverty by a third, tripled the national debt, lied about selling weapons to Iran in exchange for hostages, and, ahem, raised the debt ceiling to one trillion dollars for the first time in the nation's history.

The Reagan Show acted as a diversion, a sop to a sentimental political culture and narrative-focused press corp. Lou Cannon's "Great Communicator" piece was an early example of how quickly and eagerly the traditional news media got with the Reagan program, a prototype of today's now standard journalistic focus on horse-race politics at the expense of fact-reporting and policy analysis. It praised Reagan's political skills, specifically his Congressional glad-handing for the '81 tax-cut bill, but left unaddressed the very questionable "supply-side" economic premises the bill was based on. The piece signaled that a profound transition had occurred, that the media and the public had fully bought into Reagan's play-acted presidency.

The climax of 1981 for Reagan was the passage of his tax-cut bill on August 3rd, which he signed into law ten days later at his crop-less, livestock-less "ranch" in Santa Barbara, during a ceremony in which he forgot his own dog's name. It was to be the defining moment, in several ways, of the Reagan Administration. It codified the philosophy that Reagan's own Vice President, George H.W. Bush, had famously derided during the Republican primaries as "voodoo economics," and about which Reagan told an interviewer: "an across the board reduction in tax rates, every time it has been tried, it has resulted in such an increase in prosperity . . . that even government winds up with more revenue." He cited no evidence for assertion, because there was none.

Thirty years later, Reagan's tenacious delusions are crippling our capacity for self-knowledge and our government's ability to perform basic functions. The reality-inverting summer of 1981 laid the foundation for a dissociative political culture that nothing yet has been able to shake, and we're all paying the price. Congressmen speak unchallenged, and with a straight face, about lowering deficits by cutting taxes for the wealthy. They threaten national default and call it patriotism. A Democratic president talks about the need to "tighten the government's belt" in a recession. Politicians concoct new and wilder truths for themselves every day, whether about WMD, death panels or bogus debt ceiling "crises," and trust that an all-too-complicit media will ratify even the looniest of their inventions.

It's all quite literally unreal, but saying so is shouting into the wind. It's old news.