Labor Day, 1980. Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan stands in front of the Statue of Liberty in wind-swept New York Harbor delivering a memorable indictment of the Carter years. Although considerably older than his Democratic opponent, the open-shirted Reagan looks refreshed, energized, and clearly happy in his starring role. The appearance is a turning point in his campaign.
Reagan knew before most that votes were won through the eyes, not the brains. The eyes go to the heart while the brain is susceptible to detours. He looked like the kind of guy you might want in charge and that was enough for many.
Despite this, Reagan believed what he said. Yes, pictures were important but words, too. After he died, some of his writing was published and it turned out he was able to skillfully translate himself into words. His sentences were airy, simple, and well-chosen. They also conveyed an impersonal warmth that successful politicians can muster.
Reagan was not stupid, as some liberals had hoped. He had a knack for bending his argument ever so slightly in the direction of his listener’s sympathies. According to Edmund Morris, one of his biographers, the former actor was emotionally hollow and intellectually incurious, yet was righteous in his convictions. Exactly where those convictions came from is a mystery. Intellectually arrived at? No. From religion? Probably not, since he was not that religious, despite his public stance as a Christian conservative.
Is it too easy to say that they came from the movies? Certainly he spoke in cinematic terms: his speeches were a series of movie scenes — unsmiling Evil Empire dictators and flashy welfare queens ripping off tax payers vs. the man from California in the white hat.
For me, Reagan is the model of a modern American president and candidate. Smiling, untroubled by doubt, decisive, and lethal. He wielded incredible power yet bore it lightly, embodying the notion that it was better to act than to understand.
Reagan was also incorruptible because he was in total agreement with the wealthy who owned him (you cannot purchase what is given to you). If their campaign contributions had strings attached, Reagan was happy to have them. Of course, what they really wanted was the country. And he gave it to them.
The 2012 presidential campaign unofficially began last night in New Hampshire where the announced Republican candidates debated. Reagan’s ghost stalked the candidates as they stood behind podiums, remembering to smile the way he did.
Every fours years, the GOP asks hopefully: “do we have another Reagan?”