Media

The Son of Reagan

An emergency team of former Reagan aides has swooped in during these last months of the re-election campaign to help recast George Bush as the true heir of the Gipper.
He clears brush on the ranch and swaggers around on city streets in cowboy boots. He favors the diction of the common man, casually mispronouncing words so as not to alarm the public with erudition. He wears his military uniform not with the sober formality of a general, but with the cultivated ease of a Hollywood actor.

No, Ronald Reagan did not invent political machismo; he was just its greatest practitioner in modern American politics. The credit belongs to new-state politicians back in the 19th century who invented what historians call the "Barbarian style." To set themselves apart from and above effete, windy, educated Easterners, the "Barbarians" strolled Capitol Hill in backwoods breeches, packing sidearms, spitting chaw every two minutes and swearing like sailors. Our politicians today who chop wood, ride shotgun in a pickup truck, and butcher the English language – all for the benefit of the television camera nearby – are their descendants.

Reagan’s genius was to update the style for the 20th century, infusing it with the right dose of sensitivity to appeal to the modern voter. His Hollywood horseback training and western backdrop provided the buckskin, which he softened with his ability to read his lines with feeling. This was a cowboy who might sometimes cry.

Given his immense success, it's no wonder that the Republicans have been doing their best to replicate that magic formula ever since – more so now that they find themselves mired in a close presidential race.

To the glee of his political handlers and supporters in the right wing media – the Reagan-izers – Son of Bush is well on his way to reinventing himself as Son of Reagan, just in time for Election Day.

On the last night of the Republican convention, it was clear that W. had finally caught on to one of "Great Communicator's" best tricks, reading a speech with emotion, if not always comprehension. There was a newfound pathos in his voice, and a new sincerity in the eye. To complete the picture of Reaganesque mystique, a wife emerged at the end in a bright red suit to gaze at him in silent adoration. The only thing missing was the Gipper's slicked back do, all Grecian formula and hair oil.

Though revved up in this election year, the process of Reaganizing Bush has been long and ongoing, harking back to 1999 when he bought the ranch in Crawford. W. needed the ranch not just to kick back (he could do that just as well in Kennebunkport), but to have the right backdrop for his upcoming political cameos in the 2000 presidential election.

To really pull on the Gipper's boots, though, W. needed more than just the 1,600 acres. He had to recast himself as a "revolutionary,” just as Reagan styled himself as the Che Guevara of those oppressed by high taxes, welfare mothers and gum-mint.

In 2000, Bush had to content himself with battling the grave domestic peril of Clintonian amorality. He was still missing a furr-in enemy, one that was suitably satanic in spirit and big enough to inspire superpower-size military vengeance – his very own "evil empire." So it must have come as a relief when Osama bin Laden stepped up to the plate in 2001, and made ''evildoers'' an integral part of the presidential lexicon.

Not satisfied with a mere global terrorist organization like al Qaeda, the Reaganizers went on to coin an entire "Axis of Evil," which included a handy list of future enemies – Iran, Iraq and North Korea – just in case anyone expected a simple victory in Afghanistan to vanquish the metastatic foe.

The Republicans have little to complain about when it comes to W., whose word-mangling vocabulary - Eye-rack, New-Kew-Ler – is every Reaganizer's dream. They do dote on every sign of those low verbal SATs.

When former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan was asked about W's grammatical tics in an online discussion arranged by the Washington Post earlier this month, the professional wordsmith who sometimes teaches at Columbia pronounced herself charmed – even converted – by his verbal incompetence:
Question from Washington, D.C.: Ms Noonan – You're a language expert. Why can't Mr. Bush pronounce nuclear correctly?
Peggy Noonan: Damndest thing. I now say new-kyew-lerr. I think it is simply easier on the tongue than new-klee-er. I don't mind if people mispronounce a word as long as they know what it means and are using it with thought and coherence. But in an odd way in America more than most countries, on language we vote with our tongues.

"Normalcy" is wrong, "Normality" is right – but Americans say normalcy and as far as I'm concerned normalcy it is – it won the tongue vote.
The tongue vote? Isn’t that illegal under the Texas sodomy statute?

Reaganizing Bush hasn’t been easy, however. For one thing, some of the real Reagans won't go along. Nancy Reagan has made clear her dislike of Bush's stand on stem cell research, and her son reports that she detests W.'s mentor-in-chief, Dick Cheney.

True believers were disappointed that the Republican Convention didn't include more celebrations of the Gipper – just a videotaped tribute to the recently deceased GOP hero. There was no blood relative of Reagan on stage in New York, unlike the DNC show at Boston. The GOP instead had to settle for Michael Reagan, the former President's adopted son.

When asked about the conspicuous absence of flesh-and-blood Reagans at the RNC as part of the Post discussion, Noonan responded with that old country club Republican stand-by: accusing the opposition of poor taste.
Michael was there to speak with love and admiration of his father. He did it. Appropriate and right. Ron Reagan showed up at Dem convention not to laud his dad but to use his dad's memory to make political points with his like-minded liberals and leftists. Fair? Sure. Classy? No.
Absent real-life Reagans, many of the party faithful would have been content with just more of the Gipper himself. "There is a shadow of disappointment and doubt on the way this convention has been set up," one delegate told reporters. "I and many other Republicans would have really liked to see far more time and bigger tributes being dedicated to the memory of Ronald Reagan, instead of having this focus on more liberal speakers."

The trouble with putting more Reagan into the convention, of course, was that TV viewers may have noticed that Son of Bush is just a pale imitation of the master. Sure, he’s got the ranch, the boots and the diction, but not the authentic touch that only a seasoned actor can bring to the role. Until recently, W. didn't know how to look confident rather than swaggering. More important on camera, he didn't know how to combine flinty resolve with caring warmth - no easy trick for anyone.

Luckily for Bush, an emergency team of former Reagan aides has swooped in during these last months of the re-election campaign to help recreate the triumph of 1984 – which explains all the babbling about optimism. Collectively, they are a "Morning in America" pill, a dose of cheerful unreality in what they hope is the nick of time.

Noonan has taken a leave of absence from The Wall Street Journal to work with the Republican National Committee (RNC) to help with the 2004 campaign. Michael Deaver, a former Reagan deputy chief of staff, is taking a more active role with the campaign, and even organized a recent visit between Bush and Nancy Reagan. Campaign aides reportedly now meet regularly with Ken Duberstein, who served as Reagan's chief of staff and former senior Reagan adviser Charlie Black. Former Reagan Press Secretary Lyn Nofziger is also reportedly working on the campaign, although he has publicly denied it.

The conservative pundits are also right on the message.

Wall Street Journal columnist George Melloan has even drawn parallels between Kerry's criticism of Bush and his earlier criticisms of Reagan. Senator John Kerry, he wrote:
now on the campaign trail accusing the president of irresponsibility, was similarly scornful of President Reagan's moves to resist Soviet and Cuban efforts to grab Central America. He called the president's well- founded fears of an invasion of Honduras by the Nicaraguan Sandinistas 'ridiculous.' …
In harking back to those years, it seems clear that Ronald Reagan was no more free of political adversaries than George W. Bush today. The idea that he got along better than Mr. Bush with Europe doesn't hold up to close scrutiny either.
Having lived through 1984, though, we don't need pundits to scrutinize the real similarities between Bush and Reagan. We are going into November 2004 with tax cuts and unlimited war spending sucking the life out of the economy now and for generations to come. Meanwhile, Son of Reagan takes a break from splitting logs, wipes the sweat from his brow, grins at the gasping, barely-making-it citizenry, and asks us to buck up and take it on the chin for the sake of "Freedom."

The truth, however, is that George Bush is far, far worse than Reagan. His doublespeak is more Orwellian (like, say, the Clear Skies Act). His Justice Department under the PATRIOT Act makes the Reagan years seem like an ACLU utopia, and his disastrous foreign policy has got us into a gore-spattered, endless war, not just a sweet little Grenadine adventure. W. has already out-deficited the master of military spending himself, and within a single term.

Despite all the Hollywood props, limo-loads of Reaganizers with makeover kits in hand can’t put a happy ending on this American story.

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Nina Burleigh has written for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and New York magazine. As a reporter for Time magazine, she was among the first American journalists to enter Iraq after the Gulf War.