The Reagan Rhetoric
History and Memory in 1980s America
Toby Glenn Bates
DeKalb : Northern Illinois University Press, 2011
Paperback. xii+240 p. ISBN-13: 978-0875806549. $32.00
Reviewed by Pierre Sicard
Université de Picardie-Jules Verne (Amiens)
Mr Bates identifies himself as a cultural and social historian. Therefore, his purpose is not to make a broad assessment of the Reagan presidency but rather (as the subtitle indicates) to show how Ronald Reagan managed to shape or bend history so that it would better conform to his personal views. Thanks to his mastery of the ‘spoken word’, he rather nimbly extricated himself from a number of critical situations and left an enviable mark in his country’s collective memory.
To better focus on Reagan’s rhetorical skills, Mr Bates chooses to zoom in on three major crises of his presidency: one he somehow inherited, the other two of his own making. Through the deft managment of these crises, Mr Bates implicitely argues that lessons can be drawn which more generally apply to Reagan’s two terms of office.
The first crisis is the Republican nominee’s early campaign trip to Neshoba county, Mississippi. The location was highly significant as this was the very place where three freedom fighters had been killed in the summer of 1964 – testifying to the enduring segregationist sentiment of the Old South. He compounded this choice by upholding states’ rights in his speech, a sure winner in Mississippi but a recipe for disaster on the national scene. Thanks to a South Bronx speech shortly after, winning over an initially heckling audience, the former California governor quickly defused the controversy, instead shifting attention to an economic situation that was far more harmful to the black minority.
With the Tehran hostage crisis which highlighted the continued weakening of the US international position, Reagan showed enough pluck to argue that the Vietnam war, still a raw memory for most of his fellow-countrymen, was a ‘noble cause’. Very much a Goldwater Republican, the presidential candidate felt passionately that the American commitment was part of a broader fight against Communism and that the Vietnam veterans deserved gratitude for their sacrifice. Mr Bates claims that Ronald Reagan succeeded in conveying such a feeling and in restoring ‘patriotic momentum’.
The most convincing analysis is that of the Iran-Contra crisis. The revelation of the sale of weapons to Iran in contravention of the Boland Amendment and the diversion of funds to aid the Contras fighting the Sandinista regime of Nicaragua translated into a brutal fall from grace. Reagan appeared confused, dodging questions and retreating into a dogged silence on the issue, an attitude which was difficult to maintain in view of the 24-hour-news-cycle emerging in the early 1980s. From November 1986 to March 1987, the rhetorical connection was thus broken. Rumors of impeachment began circulating. The Tower Commission (an investigation he had himself launched) however exonerated him from any direct responsibility in this scheme, though he paid the price of the exposure of his hands-off approach as Chief Executive. By the end of 1987, he had quite unexpectedly regained his popularity.
For Mr Bates, there are lessons to be drawn from the management of these three fairly different crises. The first and most important one is that Reagan’s greatest asset was the consistency of his message. His ability to stick to a few well-worn lines that nonetheless expressed deeply-held convictions lent him precious credibility. Rather than appear inconsistent, Reagan opted to remain silent, an obvious gamble for someone who was first and foremost the ‘Great Orator’. This, however, enabled him to resume speaking from a position of relative strength once he had the Tower Report in hand.
Sharply contrasting with Carter, Reagan exuded optimism. The second lesson is that in the American cultural tradition, it is far preferable to bank on hope rather than play on fears – all the more so in the midst of a serious crisis of confidence. More than simply reassuring, Ronald Reagan struck most of his contemporaries as eminently likeable. Mr Bates stresses in his conclusion that the 40th President ‘s statue, which can be seen in the Statuary Hall of Congress, dons a beaming smile (an exception); this served Reagan well while in office and it is the way he will be remembered by most.
Now, were such assets the surest bulwarks against the myriad of problems any President will inevitably encounter? Can they be sufficient to weather the worst storms? In his analysis of the Irangate scandal, the author briefly alludes to Nixon and Carter. Equipped with such precious as well as endearing qualities, would Richard Nixon have recovered from the Watergate affair (since the parallel was made between these two serious breaches of the people’s trust)? Ronald Reagan is said to have been a transformative President, which Nixon was not, especially with regard to his domestic policies. How did Reagan’s strong ideological bearing – which constituted a clear break with the past Presidents of the previous half century – contribute to a successful presidency? By exclusively focusing on the rhetoric, Mr Bates’s reader somehow lacks that perspective. Unquestionably, Reagan’s economic and foreign policies earned him a credibility that none of his immediate predecessors could claim. Moreover, could the rhetoric by itself dispel the doubts concerning his ability to steer the country on a safe path when the candidate and then the President was prone to alarming gaffes (none of which is mentioned in the book); could it demonstrate that he was in control despite damaging evidence to the contrary during the Iran-Contra scandal ?
Contrasting with Franklin D. Roosevelt with whom he shared remarkable rhetorical skills, we are somehow made to feel that Reagan used his talent not so much to promote new policies as to move beyond crises that he had himself precipitated. The meticulously documented study that is carried out by the author is nonetheless a precious contribution to a subject that has been little touched on. The clarity of his writing makes this work pleasant to read and at the same time quite instructive for all those who remain fascinated by this iconic President.
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