That’s America

Stephen Greenblatt

  • ‘Ronald Reagan’, the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology by Michael Rogin
    California, 366 pp, £19.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 520 05937 9

The 15th-century classic of paranoid witch-hunting, Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum, provides a convenient gloss on the word ‘glamour’. Witches, the Dominican inquisitors tell us, can rob a man of his penis or at least make him think that he has been robbed. The victim wakes up in the morning, looks down and sees nothing there – or rather he sees, where his penis should be, what is called a ‘glamour’.

Under Nancy’s adoring gaze, Ronald Reagan’s valedictory address at the Republican National Convention was a glamorous performance. But at one point, trying to reproach the Democrats with John Adams’s phrase ‘Facts are stubborn things,’ he slipped and declared instead: ‘Facts are stupid things.’ At the moment he wished to invoke an intransigent, incontrovertible reality which would supposedly confound his enemies and bear out the glorious achievement of his tenure in office, his tongue rebelled and brushed reality away. He showed, of course, no sign of embarrassment: one of Reagan’s considerable gifts as a politician has been his ability to lift much of the country out of the realm of shame. He has taught Americans that there is nothing to be ashamed of – not only no disgraceful actions but no hidden self to be disgraced. What unconscious force then substituted ‘stupid’ for ‘stubborn’? No force at all, only a glitch in the transmission, the meaningless celluloid stutter of Gary Trudeau’s merciless caricature, Ron Headrest.

The President moved smoothly from presumptive facts to stories, a realm where he has always been more at home. ‘It is our gift,’ he said, ‘to have visions, and I want to share that of a young boy who wrote to me shortly after I took office.’ Over the years he has launched into hundreds of these anecdotes: the country, it seems, is filled with juvenile letter-writers, refugees from the Evil Empire, freedom-loving victims of the wicked Sandinistas, armless teenage entrepreneurs who have started small businesses in their spare time while training for the Olympics. This particular visionary wrote to Ronald Reagan that he loved America ‘because we have about two hundred flavours of ice cream’. ‘That’s America,’ the President observed. ‘Everyone with his or her vision of the American promise.’ The charm of the anecdote was its complete vacuousness: no tale of harrowing escape, no Horatio Alger rise from misery to wealth, no denunciation of the evils of godless Communism – at most a very oblique reference to the virtues of supply-side economics.

The only emperor, the story seemed to say, is the emperor of ice-cream. But then the television cameras scanned the crowd and found faces taut with emotion, eyes brimming with tears. The point was not that Reagan had for once eschewed his taste for melodramatic anecdotes, but rather that by now he can achieve the same histrionic effects with nothing. Lurking behind the performance is Reagan’s weird agenda: a massive invisible laser shield against nuclear attack coupled with a refusal to abjure a nuclear first-strike, a call for capital punishment coupled with a crusade against abortion, a spectacularly expensive arms build-up coupled with a noisy denunciation of government spending. But in his farewell words the President did not need to explain or defend his programme. The final triumph of the cult of personality is that it can expose its emptiness without losing its magic.

Michael Rogin’s brilliant collection of essays, ‘Ronald Reagan’, the Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology, attempts to account for and destroy this magic by restoring the two dimensions it has effaced: history and psychic interiority. The title essay opens by describing an obscure Forties B-movie, Murder in the Air. Weaving together an attack on subversion, the merging of Communism and Fascism, and the celebration of a secret agent as guardian of the national security, the plot centres on a foreign threat to a miraculous defensive weapon, a sophisticated device which, according to an American admiral, will ‘make America invincible in war and therefore be the greatest force for peace ever invented’. The secret agent in this otherwise forgettable movie was played by Ronald Reagan. He is still living inside the film, and he’s managed to lure a nation of 240 million people in with him.

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