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August 20, 2006

Chauncey Gardiners Media  Politics

Following a trail of links, I happened to arrive at Robert Parry's 1999 review of Edmund Morris's Reagan biography, Dutch. In a remarkable passage, Morris provides a rather shocking list of examples of Reagan's utter cluelessness. Parry:

[T]he Reagan in Dutch comes across as a shallow human being — a man so self-absorbed that he failed to recognize his own son, Michael, at his high school graduation.

Morris also judges Reagan as a one-dimensional leader who himself mixed fantasy with fact in the service of his ideological goals, a man who possessed an "encyclopedic ignorance."

In one sardonic passage, Morris wrote that "the world that rotates inside [Reagan's] cerebellum is, if not beautiful, encouragingly rich and self-renewing. It is washed by seas whose natural 'ozone' produces a healthful brown smog over coastal highways, and rinsed by rivers that purify themselves whenever they flow over gravel. ...

"Reagan's world is not entirely without environmental problems. It glows with the 'radioactivity' of coal burners (much more dangerous than nuclear plants), and is plagued by 'deadly diseases spread by insects, because pesticides such as DDT have been prematurely outlawed.' Acid rain, caused by an excess of trees, threatens much of the industrial northeast.

"Geopolitically, the globe presents many challenges. ... North and South Vietnam should never have been permitted to join, having been 'separate nations for centuries.' The Soviet Union [is] bent on invading the United States via Mexico (a strategem of 'Nikolai' Lenin). ... The economy of South America is a mess, particularly in Portuguese-speaking Bolivia."

See also Helen Caldicott's account of a meeting she had with Reagan, one of my very first posts here at Past Peak.

Morris calls Reagan an ideologue with a "Daliesque ability to bend reality to his purposes." He was aided immeasurably in this by his "encyclopedic ignorance." This was one of the secrets of Reagan's success as the Great Communicator. He could utter all manner of nonsense and lies with completely convincing sincerity because his inner world was unencumbered by facts. He believed what he was saying, and that made him believable.

The appearance of sincerity is one of the factors that made Reagan the perfect front man for the television age. It didn't hurt, too, that he was an "amiable dunce" (all the more so after his shooting by Bush family friend John Hinckley, from which Reagan never fully recovered). He seemed well-meaning and was so obviously clueless that to criticise him too sharply violated Americans' sense of fair play. Sure he was muddled, but he seemed such a sweet old guy. Picking on him was like picking on the mentally handicapped. This consequence of Reagan's cluelessness, together with his amiable sincerity, was the source of his famous Teflon coating.

Reagan's backers may not have anticipated in advance how spectacularly well Reagan's ideologically-driven cluelessness would play on tv, but the lesson surely was not lost on them as it played out. Bush, Sr. and Clinton, in contrast, were obviously not dunces, so they lacked the ignorance defense, and it cost them.

As the Republicans searched for someone to cast in the role of President in 2000, it seems clear that they looked for a telegenic figure with the same kind of ideological sincerity unencumbered by facts. Dubya doesn't have Reagan's doddering amiability, but he's got the encyclopedic ignorance and the reliance on "gut instinct" over analysis. And he's got something Reagan didn't have: a well-crafted image as a born-again, evangelical Christian. So, once again, we're in the position where pointed attacks on Bush's ignorance seem like picking on a dummy — rude and off-putting. Bush plays the front man, and behind him Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, et al, run the country.

Democrats look back on Clinton with nostalgia because he was so bright, so knowledgable, so nuanced, so talented. Republicans look back on Reagan with nostalgia because he was so uncomplicated, appealing to simplistic ideological belief, not analytical thought. You really didn't have to think or to know anything, you just had to believe in the man.

Look again at Morris's small peek into Reagan's bizarre inner world and consider that this man was leader of the free world for eight years. And now we've got Dubya. A political formula is being perfected. If we don't demand knowledgable, capable leaders, we are going to be subjected to a succession of dunces whose job is to go on tv, while the real power is exercised elsewhere.

Posted by Jonathan at August 20, 2006 05:50 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


I hope you didn't follow my trail of links to the Parry review of Morris' book :-)

I like the Caldicott tale of her meeeting with Ronnie (obviously I have a fairly black sense of humour) - I'm not sure I should admit this, but I liked Reagan. I hope that the fact that I was a teenager relying on TV news and a Murdoch newspaper to interpret reality for me is a mitigating factor...

Posted by: Big Gav at August 21, 2006 04:33 AM

You've long since expiated the sins of your youth, Gav. :-)

Posted by: Jonathan at August 21, 2006 10:36 AM