MATERIAL WORLD: Less Than Meets The Eye

The recent hue and cry raised by the publication of "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," arises from the coy admixture of truth and fiction utilized by author Edmund Morris to explicate the black hole that was our 40th President.This new biography, arriving, as it does, on the cusp of the coronation of King George Bush II, may offer some valuable lessons in the retrograding of the American presidency. Two hundred some odd years after ridding ourselves of the detested monarchy, we have come full circle. From leadership by men of action, to leading men as action figures.The only significant difference that remains between us and the Brits is that while they are stuck with the bloodless end products of centuries of royal inbreeding, we get to choose from a variety of attractive figureheads, cast to the physical mold of a president, devoid of the substance of statesmanship.We like to pick a two fisted, basso profundo, John Wayne kind of a guy. A tall, broad shouldered fellow, with a full head of hair, who golfs in the 80's, and can throw out the opening day baseball with appropriate grace. An empathic candidate, who offends no one, and appeals to the lowest common denominator.The short , the balding, and the overweight need not apply. And the highest office in the land is not handicapped accessible. Dwight Eisenhower would have needed hair transplants, and Grover Cleveland's girth would have been a disqualifier. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would not have made it past the Rose Garden, nor would the nearsighted haberdasher who succeeded him, and certainly not the former general with the wig and wooden teeth. What we want is a chief executive whose face appears pre-carved for Mount Rushmore. What we end up with are men with the interior life of a block of granite.Right up until the election of 1960, we Americans chose our presidents based on character, on their past accomplishments, and their dreams for the future. All that changed dramatically during the first televised presidential debates, when Richard Nixon's 5 o'clock stubble overshadowed his words and Jack Kennedy's photogenicity ushered in the golden age of made-for-television candidacy. In Ronald Reagan, we reached the apotheosis of style over substance, a presidential veneer over an indeterminate substrate, a politican for the IKEA age.Fourteen years after being designated Ronald Wilson Reagan's "official biographer", after receiving a substantial advance from Random House, and being given unlimited access to the legendary Gipper portrayer, author Morris travelled the yellow brick road that is the Reagan hagiography, only to discover that the Great Oz did not exist. When he reached the Emerald City and pulled back the curtain, what he found was a cipher, a gaping maw from which flowed an endless stream of deeply pointless banality.Morris' subject is a man who approached the world with what "The New Yorker" calls a "monumental incuriosity". A man of surpassing charm who could neither recognize the members of his own Cabinet nor remember the names of his children, let alone the pesky details of arms control treaties. A man as fungible as celluloid, who was unable to distinguish movies from reality, nor to separate the lines he read as an actor from the speeches he delivered as president. Is it any wonder then that Morris, devoid of the materiality of the man, embroidered the truth? Certainly this embellishment of the facts is no different from what Reagan's handlers had been doing all along. Like the resident of a Potemkin village, the Ron we thought we knew existed only in our imaginations.What surprises is not that the author created an imaginary narrative to flesh out Mr. Reagan's disturbingly sparse vitae, but that anyone actually expected to find a guiding intelligence behind the facade. Elucidating the character and motivations of Mr. Reagan, or, for that matter, any other political figure currently on the national stage, would seem to be an exercise in futility. Like the shell game practiced on the innocent by street hustlers, modern politics has become a refinement of sleight of hand perpetrated on the slight of mind. Surely, we should have figured out by now that a politician, like an actor, is a tabula rasa on which our expectations write.If the Reagan biography illustrates anything, it is how far we have come from what the founding fathers envisioned. Certainly they could not have predicted elections won on the basis of television advertising budgets. Which may provide a direction for genuine campaign finance reform. That change will not come from the Congress, nor from the White House. It will only come when we stop choosing presidents based on fabulation, on airbrushed idealizations delivered to the electorate via 30 second commercial blitz bombing. Until then we'll be stuck with one version after another of Ronald Reagan, the American presidency as virtual reality.

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