Saturday, September 25, 2004

Re-writing the Script

On June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan, at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate on the West German side of the Berlin Wall, utters the simple and memorable sentence: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Not good enough for Edmund Morris, the author of Dutch: "What a rhetorical opportunity missed. He could have read Robert Frost's poem on the subject, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," to simple and shattering effect. Or even Edna St. Vincent Millay's lines, which he surely holds in memory, floating over that chain of paper ribbons, woven by him and Bud Cole onstage, fifty-six years ago: Only now for the first time I see This wall is actually a wall, a thing Come up between us, shutting me away From you ... I do not know you anymore."

It mattered not to the Edmund Morris that the wall soon did come down and arguably more through the efforts of Ronald Reagan than anyone. What mattered was his lack of intellectual style. Instead of referencing poems that would please the likes of Edmund Morris and the small set of extremely literate people who would get the references, Reagan spoke directly and without ornamentation, in a sentence that no doubt easily translated to the target audience, not to mention those in attendance. Imagine translating Frost's (a very American poet) line, which is the beginning of a poem that actually celebrates walls, into German. It would have rivaled in comedy another famous line to the Germans: Kennedy's "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner." "Ich bin ein Berliner," literally translated to Germans outside of Berlin, is "Today, I am a jelly doughnut." In Berlin, however, Berliner indeed means a resident of Berlin. Nevertheless, JFK’s younger brother Ted, seeking to be worthy of the proudest boast in the world of freedom, set out on a lifetime diet that appears to consist exclusively of jelly donuts.

To understand the Reagan presidency, it is almost necessary, in my mind, to understand the difference between old and new Hollywood. As an actor, Reagan came of age at (or perhaps even prior to) the timing of the Hayes Code, which regulated the content of Hollywood movies. An example of such regulation included the rule that no character could ultimately be seen to profit from a crime. Of course, early television and movies are often now criticized as now showing life as it truly was – instead, we are told viewers were forced to consume a fiction, and that real life was not Ozzie and Harriet.

Be that as it may, it appears to me that Reagan, ever the actor seeking a role in the fictional Hollywood fantasy, scripted in his own mind the qualities of a good president, and merely followed the script. In doing so, he truly was the embodiment of the American dream – that in this country, we can choose who we want to be. And so many biographers, foremost among them Morris, are constantly looking for that clue – that event in the formative stages of his personality or in his family history that explains some psychological vector that makes his life fall into place as the quite logical consequence of a fixed personality. The theory that underlies that attempt is that people cannot change, cannot rethink the “role” they want to play as if they are simply re-writing a movie script. And so they inevitably do not “get” Reagan – he is an utter anomaly to them.

And Reagan did something similar for American foreign policy. He re-wrote the script that so many thought we were destined to follow – apologetic for our past and ill-willing to try to combat Soviet expansion. Carter got a reputation for being the Human Rights president by beating up on the minor abuses of regimes that the Soviets had no interest in protecting, while the Soviets themselves made great headway in bringing new nations in Africa and South and Central America into their totalitarian sphere. Reagan did not ignore the blatant expansionist intentions of the Soviets, which were casually dismissed by those on the Left as civil wars (which is how they viewed Vietnam as well).

The intellectual’s confusion in trying to understand Reagan’s success is compounded by the intellectual’s self-serving over-estimate of the role that intellect plays in leadership. Of course, there are many who always considered him a dunce, though this view is really difficult to sustain if you were to read many of his early speeches (many which he wrote himself and delivered as a spokesman for GE) but no matter one’s opinion of Reagan’s intellect, I would admit that it had little to do with his success.

Reagan knew as a matter of moral principle that economic freedom embodied in capitalism was superior to communism. And such a view ran counter to opinions at the time held by such prominent economists as Galbraith and Paul Samuelson, that the Soviet economy was as robust as the US economy. To Reagan, no matter what the “data” said, only someone entirely bereft of knowledge of human nature could believe such a thing, and many economists fit that description. They might mock his intellect, and no one could say it was on par with Samuelson’s, but I’ll take Reagan’s leadership any day over Samuelson’s. One believed that society is best ordered when people are given ample freedom to choose their course in life, for the other such a notion had to be proved.

And while there are some who seek to truly follow, most want leadership over their own lives, and they will always value the leader who recognizes that fundamental need as the highest. This was what Reagan sought to provide to the American people through his domestic policies, and to the people suffering under the boot of Communist thugs through his foreign policy. Reagan re-wrote his own script, but the reason I think he is to be revered is that he made it possible for so many others to do the same.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

and here I thought the capatilist thugs were the good guys. You have to love support and revere a president and man who supports the slaughter of the down trodden (the supposed civil wars of El Salvador and Guatemala) If you visit the countries I believe that you might get an inkling of what really occurs in these countries. As far as I am concerned capatilism is bound to fall in a country where 15 families not percent but families own 95% of the wealth. With support from the american military, we instructed death squads how to treat insurgents and uprising, you know the poor who want more than a cardboard shack, and turned our backs on brutal dictators and governments because they werent communists. Even though I am not an economist I realize that there is no way in hell that the american lifestyle can procede at this ridiculous rate.
The problem with republicans as I see it, is that they are unable to see past the borders of the United States, they live in fantasy world of perfect growth black and white. Is it more enticing for a peasant to live in a communist society where they will be taken care of as opposed to working the land of someone else.
And none of this you get what you work for cause thats a cop out answer.

8:22 PM  

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