The late Alexander Cockburn in the LRB of 7 February 1991 on the perceived essential ‘non-goodness’ (Nixon) or ‘non-badness’ (Carter, Reagan, Bush) of American presidents, and the time he pulled Reagan’s hair:
Years ago Roland Barthes wrote about the bourgeois propensity to think in essences, and nowhere is this more evident than in the way Americans think and write about their political leaders…
Reagan answered most satisfactorily this essentialist expectation, since as an excellent actor he had no problem in assuming or discarding roles, and could constantly refashion the ‘essential Reagan’ and live each new role with utter inner conviction.
The first time I saw him in the flesh I thought immediately that ‘flesh’ seemed too intimate a word for the tissue he was then presenting, in 1976, as the visage of a man younger than his years. The ‘age factor’ was thought to be a problem. During the press conference in the New York Hilton in which this ‘age factor’ was delicately raised he invited us to come up and look at his hair, give it a tug if necessary, make sure it wasn’t tinted dark by Grecian formula. As I gave his hair a dutiful yank he held his head forward with a detachment so docile that it was clear that here was a man of iron resolve, every resource recruited to the business of being Reagan-as-young-man-with-dark-hair.
The last time I saw him, with Nancy at the Republican Convention in New Orleans in 1988, flesh was no longer a word one could even toy with, as I gazed at his impassive lizard-like countenance. The President’s body sat there, not at all like a human frame reposing in the moments before public oratory, but as Reagan-at-rest extruding not a tincture of emotion until impelled by some unseen spasm of synapses into Reagan-amused, the briefest of smiles soon being dismissed in favour of the sombre passivity one associates with the shrouded figure in some newly-opened tomb before oxygen commences its mission of decay…
Essentially ‘good’, and hailed as such, even as he cut school lunch programmes and Federal housing subsidies, Reagan could survive any damaging story, outsmile the exposure of any lie, and An American Life is just one more episode in this mendacious odyssey. The new act is a golly-gee account of how a small-town boy got to the White House, saved America from economic ruin and founded a new era of world peace.
It’s eerie to read this stuff now: like looking at the silent movies of Reagan’s childhood. The acting styles have already changed, the props look out of date. Gone from us only two years, Reagan already seems as remote in time as Harding or Coolidge, and the vainglory of his renewed America and his new world era seems as tinny as a silent-movie piano amid the rumbling disasters of the new decade where non-badness is having its violent rendezvous with Evil.