The American novelist and critic Gore Vidal famously referred to Ronald Reagan as “the acting President.” A clever turn of phrase, the kind of which Vidal was really good at, that highlights how Reagan was both the POTUS who happened to be an actor, and the sense in which Reagan was only ever filling in for someone else who might have been the real POTUS. Reagan was a president for the interim.
But Reagan has turned out to be much more than a passing fad–and the reason why might be related to his training as an actor. What makes an actor good is her or his ability to adapt to and play various roles. This skill likely made Reagan so successful as President and such an adept orator.
Reagan’s training as an actor is also what makes his imprimatur so valuable in politics these days. His words are reenacted to advance the policy positions of both the right and the left.
For example, on the Utah House floor yesterday afternoon state Rep. LaVar Christensen fondly cited Ronald Reagan while debating marriage and divorce. According to Christensen, Reagan’s greatest regret while governor of California was signing the Family Law Act of 1969 which allowed for “no-fault” divorces. Christensen failed to mention that Reagan was also the only POTUS to have been divorced.
The left is also guilty of this sort of de-contextualized thinking. In a speech on reducing gun violence, President Obama recently cited Ronald Reagan’s support for a ban on assault weapons. While it is true that Reagan wrote a 1991 New York Times op-ed in support of a ban on assault weapons, it would be hard to claim Reagan was ever an advocate of gun control.
But these two cases are illustrative of how easy it is to force historical figures (though I admit it is strange to think of Reagan as being a historical figure) into different roles, depending on the speaker’s own purposes. Today, appeals to Reagan are valuable for both the left and right. The right uses him to shore up its ranks and the left, seeming to understand references to Reagan as having a magical effect on the right (and perhaps they do), is fond of citing Reagan’s more liberal positions.
The error of positioning Reagan as an esteemed historical figure is that it creates a cult of personality that glosses over the really horrible damage he did to United States’ policy and citizens. Right or left, the cult of Reagan is bad for America. It intentionally (on the right) and inadvertently (on the left) turns Reagan into a Founding Father.