Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Ronald Reagan, Ideology, New Right, Conservatism.
Much of Garry Wills's argument in Reagan's America can be encapsulated by George Costanza's advice to Jerry Seinfeld, prior to Jerry's being polygraphed about his Melrose Place viewing habits: "It's not a lie if you believe it." Over and over again, Wills scrutinizes the tales and myths told by Reagan about himself in his private speeches, public addresses, and autobiography, and finds them to be embellished, exaggerated, and - more often than not - patently false. And therein lies his uncanny appeal for so many people: Reagan's myths are America's myths. "Despite Reagan's love for a raptly imagined future," writes Wills, "he never lost his love for an equally imaginary past. His optimism was able to rise above the worry over (or even awareness of) present discontents because he saw us so clearly poised between the Good Old Days and the Brave New World." (xxiii) Or, as he puts it a few paragraphs later, "Reagan was a great communicator because he was a great storyteller [and the] stories about our past were always better than any evidence about it...[For Reagan], we were suspended between two glowing myths: the religious past and the technological future. Whatever trouble afflicts us now is caused only by doubters of our double myths -- and Reagan had no gift for doubt. He did not invent the mythic complex. It speaks to very American attitudes toward past, present, and future, towards religious stability and technological change." (xxiv-xxiv)
With his vivid prose, keen dissection of cinema, and trademark turns of phrase, Wills then proceeds to follow "Dutch" Reagan through the various stages of his life, from birth to lifeguarding to Eureka College, on to sportscasting and Hollywood and the labor movement, and finally to GE pitchman, California governor, and GOP candidate for President. Along the way, the faults, mistruths, and lies that Wills exposes in Reagan's expressed vision of his own past are almost too numerous to mention. Reagan claims to have been the proud product of can-do-it individualist society, of a "land made great because it was free from big government." Instead, "much as he tries to deny it, Ronald Reagan was cradled in the arms of 'govment.'" (102) (And, moreover, Wills finds, "the New Deal bailed the Reagans out.") (76) Similarly, Reagan often told stories of being "off to war" during WWII, even getting as far the German concentration camps, which he claimed to film for the US Army Signal Corps. In fact, Reagan never left Hollywood at this time. (As Wills deadpans, "War movies are hell.") (201) Or, to take yet another example, Reagan related in his autobiography how a group of established actors (himself included) banded together to establish the Screen Actors Guild in order "to use their personal power in order to better the lot of their fellow actors." In fact, Wills notes, "one could hardly turn the history of the Guild more entirely upside down" - the actors started SAG for personal economic motives, in order to undercut the salary caps included in the new NRA code of 1933. (262) And so on, and so on. As it turns out, almost all of Reagan's "true" stories seem to have been grounded in his imagination (a notable exception being his lifeguard work) - and, indeed, many of them have origins in scenes from his own films (including, as Frances FitzGerald points out, possibly the idea behind SDI.)
But, for Wills, to focus on Reagan's patent dishonesty is to miss the forest for the trees. For, as noted above, he speaks to Americans' primal sense of "original sinlessness." As Wills puts it, "the truth about our actual behavior, whether on the old frontier or the new, is as threatening to our sense of identity as the terrorist himself." (452) And because Reagan believes so thoroughly in his own American myths, many Americans could join him in believing them as well. "Even young people who did not grow up with Reagan, or grow up hearing him on the radio or watching him at the movies, have accepted his version of the past as their own best pledge of the future. That is not as surprising as it might seem. A visit to his past is always a pleasant experience. Visiting Reaganland is very much like taking children to Disneyland...It is a safe past, with no sharp edges to stumble against. The more visits one makes to such a past, the better is one immunized against any troubling cursions of a real [American past.] If capitalist 'conservatism' canoot be rooted in the real past it works to obliterate, then it will invent a deracinating past, a nostalgia for the new, a substitute history to lull us in the time machine that travels on no roads, reaching goals no one could plan." (459-460)
In sum, "Reagan gives our history the continuity of a celluloid Mobius strip. We rides its curves backwards and forwards at the same time, and he is always there." (440) Put differently, the appeal of Ronald Reagan for so many is that he offers us a simulacrum of American history that is both appealingly mythic and appallingly untrue.