Those who thought Karl Rove would keep Ronald Reagan on life support until election eve were proven wrong when the Gipper died on Saturday. In TV terms, he showed very bad timing.
Reagan’s demise intruded on a major sports weekend. NBC was faced with the unpleasant prospect of cutting into the Belmont Stakes. CBS had the Stanley Cup on tap. As it turned out, both high-revenue broadcasts, along with the French Open, went on the air as scheduled. Reagan would have understood. After all, he hadn’t paid for the microphone.
In contrast, cable news networks leapt at the chance to preempt their soft Saturday programming. They cued up the black-and-white bio footage, the theme music that recalled Aaron Copland (badly), the personal friends dragged out of bed to recollect. Many a hard-boiled reporter got yolky; many an expert went musing in action. You got the feeling that any new revelation about Reagan would require a seven-figure advance.
Unless you’re willing to turn off the TV or rent The Reagans, that movie CBS refused to air (it’s now on video), brace yourself for a high-concept version of Sonny Bono’s funeral, sans Cher. There will be gushing eulogies and artfully hedged evaluations. We won’t be reminded that the Great Immiserator regarded ketchup as a school-lunch vegetable, or that he kept silent on AIDS while the epidemic raged. That’s what happens when a popular president dies in bed. The bad is interred with the bones.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Reagan’s iconic absence stole The 60th Anniversary of D-Day Show. Bush did his best to command attention, but the political purpose of the event—to associate his agenda with the struggles of the Greatest Generation—paled before the Gipper’s demise. The best Bush could do when he got word of the passing was to muster (and flub) a few words of praise for Reagan’s response to “tie-ranny.” Ron’s D-Day speech from 20 years ago got better play than W’s remarks.
It was a dismal ending to a rough week for the president. First he got scolded by the Holy Father; then he was sniffed at by Jacques Chirac. Watching Bush’s perpetually pursed lips, you could only wonder: Who the weasel?
There’s been much speculation about whether Bush will be able to cast himself as Reagan’s political scion. His handlers have already run a campaign ad emphasizing Bush’s optimism. But let the spinner beware! Dubya looks all the smaller and meaner next to Sun God Ron. Aside from imitating Clint Eastwood’s steely squint and borrowing Tom Cruise’s wardrobe from Top Gun, Bush lacks the Hollywood touch that graced Reagan. There was always a hint of decadence in Ron’s devoutness. Dubya’s hidden dimension is sheer terror.
The most interesting thing about Reagan’s death was the new image it generated. Now he was Ron the Intellectual. He “wrote many of his own speeches,” former secretary of state James Baker marveled on Face the Nation. The 1994 letter in which Reagan announced that he had Alzheimer’s was described by Baker in the hushed terms usually reserved for a literary feat. “Remarkable,” the host, Bob Schieffer, agreed.
On CNN, Ron’s love letters to Nancy were recited in all their Hallmarkian power. He read voraciously, an expert panel on Charlie Rose concurred. Biographer Edmund Morris back-storied the moment in the 1984 presidential debates when Reagan told Walter Mondale that he wouldn’t make an issue of his challenger’s youth. Of course that line had been scripted, Morris noted, but Reagan revised it to sound less awkward. So this was his claim to creative fame: improving a punch line. Charlie seemed impressed. His brows rose, as they often do when he’s in the presence of greatness.
It’s a trope of mourning to intone, “We will not see his like again.” But Reagan’s death evokes more tangible feelings. As one Californian on her way to view the body put it, “He was a great man, and I cannot even talk, because there is no more.” Indeed, much of the praise was laced with implicit disparagment of Bush. In stark contrast to Ron, Dubya isn’t magical—or even very loveable. He’s rigid where Ron was loose; pissed-off instead of happy-go-lucky. And as for his intellect, the best his supporters will say is that Bush isn’t the dummy he’s made out to be. He actually reads briefing papers.
The fascinating thing about postmodern nostalgia is that it elevates the bottom, thereby placing the present on even lower ground. The fuss over Reagan’s speeches and letters reminds us that, if the current occupant of the White House ever writes a memoir, even his commas will be ghosted.
We’ll see, as the pageant of Remembering Ron unfolds, whether the comparison with Bush emerges as a theme. I’m counting on Nancy to keep the flame of her fury alive. After all, it was Bush who stifled the stem-cell research that might have kept Ronnie in her life a little longer. Bush did it in the name of God. It’s enough to make you grateful that the Reagans preferred Metro-Goldwyn-Mammon.