RONALD REAGAN: The Politics of Symbolism by Robert Dallek

RONALD REAGAN: The Politics of Symbolism

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It's common to view Ronald Reagan aa a manipulator of symbols without substance: the ""Great Communicator"" who has nothing much to say. On this occasion, UCLA historian Dallek (Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, The American Style of Foreign Policy) gives us little beyond the common coin of his journalistic sources. Reagan the drunkard's son who learned to detest and fear dependence; Reagan the radio and movie star, more lucky than talented or diligent, who learned to praise the work ethic: this is the figure with whom we're familiar. Following a narrative course from Reagan's youth, Dallek often quotes the president's reminiscences of a bucolic Illinois and of soda-fountain dates at Eureka College. The soppy goo of these tales is a source of symbols for Dallek--small town values, good clean fun, etc.--and he compares them to Ray Bradbury's evocation of his Illinois town and other period-memoirs; but without comparison to some objective portrait, we don't know how much fantasy is involved. Reagan's role in King's Row may have been his best, Dallek notes, but it was as the hero figure, riding in to save people in distress (inevitably, his father), that he found the self-image he preferred. He rode in to save the Screen Actors Guild from communism, and thus started his political career. Dallek tells us nothing new about Reagan's stint as GE's mouthpiece or his terms as governor of California. In the latter case, he entered office with an inexperienced staff and simplistic ideas. He promised a 10 percent state budget cut across all departments, for instance, oblivious to the fact that some operated on income from special sources (like the highway department, from gasoline taxes), so that cutting their budgets would not affect the overall budget he was trying to balance. Eventually, he wound up with the biggest budget in California history. It was then that he learned to act as if what he had wanted to do was done, or as if he had originally supported whatever turned out well. Bringing the story up-to-date, Dallek focuses on the incoherence of Reagan's domestic and foreign policies--the result, as he sees it, of mixed signals (such as Reagan's confusing combination of arms limitations offers and arms deployment actions). For anyone still unfamiliar with this general interpretation of Reagan, Dallek's synthesis will serve as a summation. Others, not interested in academic gloss, will prefer to go straight to Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon's 1982 bio.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1984
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press