The standard image of President Ronald Reagan as a game but fuddled movie actor is an image so stale as to be rebarbative. It is the standby of the weary cartoonist, the flagging gag-writer and the composer of hackneyed captions. It’s been a boast of mine, during some years of writing from Washington, that I have never lampooned the old boy as a Wild West ham, an All-American kid, a granite-jawed GI, or any other of the stock repertoire. To fall for such instant ‘takes’ is to be a hack oneself – like those who go to Republican conventions in Texas and dwell endlessly on the rhinestones and ten-gallon hats.
Now, as we lurch uncertainly into the second term, comes Professor Michael Rogin of the University of California with a serious thesis on Reagan and celluloid. And now I wish that I had paid more attention to the obvious. At the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in New Orleans, Rogin gave a paper entitled ‘Ronald Reagan: The Movie’. This paper makes the most blasé, acclimatised Washingtonian sit up and peer around. For example, I still remember the irritation I felt at my own emotion when Reagan last summer made his D-Day anniversary speech in Normandy. I knew that I was being got at, but I swallowed and blinked all the same when he asked the assembled leathery veterans: ‘Where do we find such men?’ I might have been better-armoured had I recognised the line from The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Likewise, in the New Hampshire primary debates in 1980, when Reagan upstaged his rivals by chirruping, ‘I’m paying for this microphone,’ few of those present recognised the plagiarism of Spencer Tracy’s State of the Union.
All the President’s lines – but not all of them so subliminal. Launching his latest nuclear fantasy, he told the press corps that ‘The Force is With Us.’ Then, rather oddly, he complained at having his ‘Strategic Defence Initiative’ nicknamed Star Wars. Defending his inventive tax-reform bill, and challenging the Democrats to make something of it, he gurgled: ‘Make my day!’ But comparisons between his style and that of Dirty Harry are daily discouraged by a pained, overworked White House press office.
The apotheosis of all this (‘Where’s the Rest of Me?’ ‘Let’s Win This One for the Gipper!’) came, Rogin believes, in 1981. ‘To confirm the President’s faith in the power of film, John Hinckley, imitating the plot of the movie Taxi Driver, deliberately shot the President on the day of the Academy Awards.’ It so fell out that Reagan had already recorded a breezy, upbeat salute to the audience at the Oscar ceremony: ‘the television audience watching a screen saw a Hollywood audience watch another screen. One audience saw the other applaud a taped image of a healthy Reagan, while the real President lay in a hospital bed.’
The point must come when one asks whether the President himself knows the difference. Perhaps it came recently when the Leader of the Free World took a gander at the impasse in Beirut and told the microphone (which he’d paid for): ‘I saw Rambo last night, and next time I’ll know what to do.’ The whoop that echoed across the nation was one that had been building for some time. But, though I first began to write about Rambo last June, I am still uncertain about what has made it so much more successful than other chauvinist, paranoid spectaculars. The theme of captive or ‘missing’ Americans in Indo-China might be thought to have been exhausted, in the last year alone, by at least three rival films. The idea that ‘we’ could have won if it weren’t for the press and the pointy-heads (‘Weimar chic’, as a friend put it to me sourly) is drearily familiar from a host of Monday-morning quarterbacks. The idea that ‘we’ actually did win, in Vietnam and everywhere else, is even now being popularised by that great studio revisionist Menachem Golan, whose latest offering is a replay of the TWA Beirut hijack – where the US Cavalry really does arrive at the last minute.
A possible explanation was offered to me unintentionally by a Vietnamese friend with whom I went to see Rambo. He took it with fair good humour, though he was generally rather appalled. He objected in particular to the portrayal of Vietnamese soldiers as Japanese – as, moreover, the cruel, kepi-wearing, buck-toothed Japanese of John Wayne vintage. Easy to see why any Vietnamese above the age of forty would resent such a vulgar confusion. But musing through a second screening, and seeing Mr Minh’s point afresh, I was struck by the final scene in which Sylvester Stallone howlingly machineguns a whole roomful of his boss’s high-tech computers, radios and retrieval systems. To him, of course, they represent the power of the pot-bellied bureaucrat over the man in the field. But to the blue-collar, semi-employed youths who yell for Rambo, may this moment not suggest the revenge on Sony, Nissan, Toyota and Mitsubishi? Today’s cold war with Asian capitalism excites scarcely less passion than did the hot one with Indo-Chinese Communism. Rambo as protectionist paradigm?
The screen, a smaller one this time, has also dominated the year’s most emotional and enduring public debate. It is a very rare night that does not feature some strong footage from the Cape of Good Hope, usually succeeded by some strenuous punditry. American networks easily make up in technological sweetness what they have abandoned by way of political depth, and some real feats have been accomplished. By satellite, and by the deft use of separate studios (Apart-Aid?), Botha and Tutu have been presented as if they were actually arguing in the same room. An issue which was, until very recently, almost occluded in America has become the foreign policy question. Its hard edge of moral choice and its pitiless focus on racialism have ensured that there is scant hiding-place for the undecided. This means that a lot of American clergymen are getting prime time without, for once, having to pay for it by the electronic collection plate.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire Marx said, rather aptly, that men learning a new language always begin by translating it back into the language they already know. Thus, the newly-potent symbols of apartheid become instantly assimilated to the memory of Selma, Montgomery and Memphis. Experienced South Africa hands like Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post (himself a white Southerner) have been arguing for years that the comparison is not even a comparison. But the temptation of analogy has proved too strong. For an entire hour the other night, the Reverend Jerry Falwell and the Reverend Jesse Jackson went at it as if the Freedom Riders were even now being bayed by Bull Connor. The two men still detest each other from that period, and neither of them seems to have read anything except the Bible (or ‘the babble’, as they both call it) since. Falwell, though still able to please a racialist crowd while later saying, ‘Who, me?’, now claims to have been delivered by the Lord from his earlier segregationist prison. Jackson, who set out as a rainbow warrior, has also kept company with bigots and claims to have been cleansed by the experience. Both know as much about South Africa as I do about molecular biology. It’s a curious thing in American life that the most abject nonsense will be excused if the utterer can claim the sanction of religion. A country which forbids an established church by law is prey to any denomination. The best that can be said is that this is pluralism of a kind.
And I wonder, therefore, how James Atlas can have been so indulgent in his recent essay ‘The Changing World of New York Intellectuals’. This rather shallow piece appeared in the New York Times magazine, and took us over the usual jumps. Gone are the days of Partisan Review, Delmore Schwartz, Dwight Mac Donald etc etc. No longer the tempest of debate over Trotsky, The Waste Land, Orwell, blah, blah. Today the assimilation of the Jewish American, the rise of rents in midtown Manhattan, the erosion of Village life, yawn, yawn. The drift to the right, the rediscovery of patriotism, the gruesome maturity of the once iconoclastic Norman Podhoretz, okay, okay! I have one question which Atlas in his much-ballyhooed article did not even discuss. The old gang may have had regrettable flirtations. Their political compromises, endlessly reviewed, may have exhibited naivety or self-regard. But much of that record is still educative, and the argument did take place under real pressure from anti-semitic and authoritarian enemies. Today, the alleged ‘neo-conservative’ movement around Jeane Kirkpatrick, Commentary and the New Criterion can be found in unforced alliance with openly obscurantist, fundamentalist and above all anti-intellectual forces. In the old days, there would at least have been a debate on the proprieties of such a united front, with many fine distinctions made and brave attitudes struck. As I write, nearness to power seems the only excuse, and the subject is changed as soon it is raised. I wait for the agonised, self-justifying neo-conservative essay about necessary and contingent alliances. Do I linger in vain?
The smart new metropolitan Right has more in common with the unpolished legions of Falwell and Rambo than it might care to acknowledge. Their shared psychology is one of super-power self-pity. Rambo sees the United States as David to the Vietnamese Goliath. By slight contrast, the Committee for the Free World views America, in Nixon’s famous, grizzling phrase, as ‘a pitiful, helpless giant’. Never in history can any group of well-connected, well-heeled, well-advertised propagandists have complained so much, and through so many outlets, about being an oppressed minority. Seldom in history has such a wealthy, powerful, overbearing government represented itself so consistently as a victim – bullied now by the Lebanese and now by the Nicaraguans. Individual self-pity (‘We want our country to love us – gulp – as much as we love our country’) merges nicely with this lachrymose conception of country itself. I don’t mind the fact that former liberals rush to repeat these old conservative commonplaces. It is, after all, one of the great themes of our time. But I do find it hard to be told, in the age of Reagan and Rambo, that it took courage for them to do so. ‘Where do we find such men?’ Only too easily.