Reagan's America

Shannon, William V.

BOOKS Always playing to the audience REAGAN'S AMERICA INNOCENTS AT HOME Garry Wills Doubkday, $19.95, 388 pp. William V. Shannon In the seventh year of Ronald Reagan's reign, as his...

...Wills makes clear three major reasons for Reagan's success...
...684...
...Rather than a i?i B-actor, that is, a mediocrity, Reagan was a star performer in Hollywood and is very good at what he does...
...From the controlled fantasies of his baseball announcing to the make-believe of Hollywood studios, to his work as host of the "General Electric Theater" and later "Death Valley Days," Reagan developed an acute sense of the basic emotions of audiences and of the best techniques for reaching them...
...Reeves used to say, "A great campaign will never wear itself out...
...As a broadcaster for a Des Moines radio station, he became regionally famous for his skill in "re-creating" baseball games...
...He is a passionate believer in his cause, and one who works hard to present it well...
...He is so intellectually empty and so indolent that it is hard to account for his astonishingly durable success by any conventional criteria, yet his popularity and political effectiveness are undeniable...
...While growing up, he also acquired a placid self-confidence and a firm set of moral values...
...His skill at "visualizing" was praised in the papers...
...That was the condition of his success...
...In the business world, a chairman delegates executive authority but he has good lines of communication that tell him what is going on in the different divisions...
...Secondly, Reagan has always been a company man...
...The Kennedy Imprisonment was shallow and tendentious, while in Nixon Agonistes Wills often labored to give complex meanings to a man and to events that were self-evidently evil or simply mean...
...he deals in emotional truths...
...Unlike many stars, he never aspired to be a director...
...The USP must be true but it need not be the whole truth or unique to the product for which it is used...
...He adopted almost every boss he ever had from Peter MacArthur, who managed a radio station in Davenport, Iowa, to Jack Warner of Warner Brothers and Ralph Cordiner of General Electric, as substitute fathers...
...He addressed them in the name of a reality (there was a ball game being played somewhere), but of a reality about which nice discriminations were not to be made..The real game "went warrant" for the imaginary one, without guaranteeing any of its lively detail...
...Many radio broadcasters around the country in the 1930s and 1940s followed this practice...
...Wills succeeds in putting Reagan into context...
...I have not read all fifteen but I can say that this is the best of his three books on recent presidents...
...Wills compares him to Rosser Reeves, the advertising executive who developed the concept of the Unique Selling Proposition...
...He never changed his agent...
...People were invited to the Crystal Palace at the Iowa Fair Grounds to watch him as he invented the game from scraps of paper...
...He believes in delegation, cooperation, team work...
...In the service of those themes, he juggles anecdotes, rearranges details, recalls the fake quotations from Marx and Lenin, and refurbishes oneliners, but the message never changes...
...Thus, there was an ambiguity about the real built into Reagan's professional life from the outset...
...They knew he was not there...
...Reagan deserves this kind of fulllength treatment because he is a genuinely baffling figure to supporters as well as enemies...
...Because they would find that Reagan was not actually at the game...
...On the basis of cryptic information provided by a Western Union wire, he described the game in vivid and extensive detail...
...Twenty-three years later, he continues to repeat his staple themes patriotism, individualism, free enterprise, anti-Communism, the danger of big government...
...Why is it so important that the audience not know that the line had gone dead...
...He signed sweetheart contracts with producers on behalf of the Guild...
...He does not interfere beyond his self-defined province...
...A fourth was the rescue of the hostages in the Middle East...
...In Reagan, however, he has found a cultural and political figure who justifies his voracious interest in social history and cultural analysis...
...William V. Shannon In the seventh year of Ronald Reagan's reign, as his political power irretrievably crumbles away, we at last have a comprehensive and penetrating explanation of his extraordinary success...
...Star Wars, aid to the contras, and opposition to higher taxes are three such issues...
...He saw his work as president of the Screen Actors Guild not as economic militancy by unionized workers but as noblesse oblige by Hollywood stars trying to help the extras and the bit players...
...If he had never entered politics, he would be a significant, second-rank figure in the history of radio, of movies, and of television, having achieved success in all three of these media...
...What is that province...
...But the deeper concern was for what gave rise to those skills, the demand for illusion in the first place...
...This is his fifteenth book...
...They glorified in the fact...
...Reagan began his career as a radio announcer and a sportswriter, doing a cohimn in the highly-colored style of his hero, Grantland Rice...
...On one occasion, the wire went dead and for nearly seven minutes, Reagan invented foul balls and other "action" to fill in the time until the wire resumed...
...There was a complicity in make-believe...
...In 1946, he was among the dozen highest-paid actors and actresses in Hollywood...
...Once discovered, the USP should be repeated tirelessly...
...This gives him a focus that is admittedly partial, but extremely effective...
...Reagan grew up a devoted son and loyal brother...
...Although Garry Wills completed Reagan's America before the Iran-contra affair broke, indeed, the book was published early in 1987 his portrait of the president makes this scandal readily understandable...
...He reconstructs Reagan's boyhood in Dixon, Illinois, his father's salesmanship and Rotarian optimism, his mother's interest in the theater, and the family's active membership in the Disciples of Christ church...
...What Reagan feared when the line went dead was, at one level, a simple matter of professional pride...
...Reagan was attuned to his audience's needs...
...This exactly describes Reagan's approach to political rhetoric...
...Those who have tried to (Continued on page 684) 682 (Continued from page 682) manipulate him have discovered that on certain subjects, he has convictions of granite and cannot be moved...
...All those involved knew they were pretending as we know that the actor onstage is not Hamlet...
...He paints a distorted, cleaned-up picture of America's past based on the frontier myth, the happy small town, the absence of conflict between workers and owners of industry, the absence of racism, injustice, and poverty, a Disneyland version of the past...
...He is successful because he does not deal in facts...
...He helped his brother get jobs and moved his parents to California three months after he began his movie career...
...We want to finish the dream, though we know it is only a dream...
...Wills offers the reader a brilliant display of cultural criticism, political analysis, and biographical insight...
...Wills writes: If one did not understand that there was no deception involved, Reagan's account of his famous dead-wire incident could mislead...
...but we do not want him to stop in mid-performance and remind us of that...
...As long as his listeners find the story interesting and credible, they do not worry about the details...
...The Iran-contra hearings have made clear that to attain his objectives, he deceived Congress and his own secretaries of state and defense...
...Nor is he simply an "image" manipulated by others...
...Reagan is often oblivious to what his cabinet chiefs are doing on major problems...
...He always knew his lines, took direction easily, and was a cooperative team man...
...Others might regard those values as faulty but they made him a serene optimist who rarely experiences guilt or conflict...
...Here we see the origins of the habits that have led Reagan in the White House to make startling errors of fact and yet be forgiven them...
...This is a book that will last...
...Translated into politics, these personal qualities enabled Reagan, notwithstanding his fierce rhetoric about creative individualism and the evils of statism, to preside amiably over large bureaucracies in Sacramento and Washington...
...According to Wills, Reagan's role in his administrations is that of being his own advertising man...
...Like all good storytellers, he embroiders the facts and sometimes invents them...
...The speech he made for Goldwater in 1964 was an adaptation of a speech he had delivered several hundred times to General Electric employees...
...Wills is a prolific and intellectually ambitious author who ranges across history, religion, and contemporary politics...
...This means that he studies everything he and his government do very closely, but from a selective angle, looking first and most intently at what can be done to make the action or idea as attractive to as many people as possible...
...Reagan is not chairman of the board in the corporate sense...

Vol. 114 • November 1987 • No. 20


 
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