When I was a press intern on the Hill, I was asked to direct VIP tours of the US Capitol building. I had certain tricks to remember my route. I knew that in order to exit the Rotunda, I would have to find the bronze statue of President Reagan. With each day, I became more curious about this man behind the statue. What motivated Reagan’s unique ideology? How was he able to captivate audiences throughout the nation? One of my former Professors recommended that I read Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism by Robert Dallek. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in politics, psychology and the compelling story behind the Reagan administration.
Okay, so here are some points I found interesting:
Reagan, Dallek argues, is a “contradiction in terms—a hero of the consumer culture preaching the Protestant ethic.” Throughout the book, Dallek references Reagan’s father whose “uncontrolled behavior placed an exaggerated premium on self-mastery in the former president’s own life and in the life of the nation.” Dallek examines the psychological impetus behind the “Reagan ideology,” and argues that the administration relied heavily on symbols rather than on reality.
Reagan feared the prospect of being the “bad guy,” and when he was an actor, he often took roles that preached morality and wholesome American values. Reagan was also claustrophobic. At the age of three, he crawled underneath a train to reach an ice wagon on the other side of the train tracks. His mother picked him up and “larruped” him, Dallek describes. A few years later, Reagan was riding in an old Ford touring car that had tipped over mid-trip. He was nearly smothered, but was saved and did not suffer any serious injuries. To Reagan, it was better to be the rescuer than the rescued. These events transformed into symbolic manifestations that guided much of Reagan’s conservative anti-communist ideology. He perceived the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”—an atheist and immoral state where the people were entirely dependent on the government. Regan believed it was his duty to “rescue” these oppressed Soviet people and instill moral “American values.”
It’s interesting how one’s personal past can affect an entire political ideology. Each politician has a story–a different path with unique motivations. I often find myself drawing parallels between President Obama and President Reagan. Both lacked stable father figures. Both promoted change and instilled a sense of confidence among the American people. Both are portrayed as heroic figures, with the difficult task of saving the nation. I think sometimes we forget that these Presidents are not statues–they are people too, with their own stories, struggles and opinions.