From the Heart of Reagan Country


By Lee Walczak Two days before Ronald Reagan died, a couple of my New York colleagues were arguing with me about why Bill Clinton, with all of his operatic ethical lapses, his endless apologies, and his lip-biting acts of faux contrition, was an exemplary President. It was his policies, stupid, I was told contemptuously.

Gawd, sometimes I can be such a blockhead, you know? But on reflection, I've decided that my journalistic colleagues had it wrong, since they were subjecting me to a goofy liberal syllogism that lives on 15 years after the Gipper left office: Clinton personal foibles bad, Clinton economic policies good. Ergo, Reagan grandeur good theater, Reagan policies dreadful.

Huh? The Eighties' economic boom, fueled by tax cuts and defense spending, was bad news? Forcing a reexamination of New Deal social programs that lost their original efficiency and spawned perpetual dependency was misguided? Accelerating the momentum for deregulation and free trade was shortsighted? And, I guess, cutting marginal tax rates and capital-gains levies to lower the cost of investment capital was a sure path to economic serfdom, right?

Convincing a card-carrying "progressive" that Reaganism wasn't the work of the devil is impossible. So I'll fall back on an old-fashioned technique for torturing elitists of all stripes: a tutorial delivered in the form of country-music lyrics.

So here goes. And for today's lecture, class, the lesson in Reaganism 101 will be delivered by none other than Professor Merle Haggard, graduate of the school of hard knocks, country-music legend, and the working man's version of Bob Dylan. Take it away, Merle...

We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee

And we don't take our trips on LSD.

We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street

We like living right and being free...

And I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee

A place where even squares can have a ball.

We still fly Old Glory down at the courthouse

And White Lightning's still the biggest thrill of all.

-- The Best of Merle Haggard, Capitol Records, 1967

Class, please put down your tall skinny lattes for a moment, and let's review a history lesson. What was Central Valley Californian Merle sayin' here, way back in the era that forged Ronald Reagan? After the social upheaval of the Sixties -- a period of unrest that gave birth to antiwar protests, medal tossing, flag-burning, the Berkeley Free Speech movement, the counterculture generally, hippies, Yippies, SDS, America's long, strange trip to Haight-Ashbury, in-your-face feminism, and the like -- came a profound reaction to the seeming tearing asunder of the old verities.

DEMOCRATS' DEMISE. Reagan may have worked as an actor in the permissive Hollywood milieu, but his roots were in Dixon, Ill., and small-town America. When the social fabric seemed to rip apart, Reagan -- who had a Norman Rockwell homily for every occasion -- seemed to be part of the nation's corrective process. After America's culture swung wildly left, toward anarchism and situational everything, Reagan arose to wrench it back to the right side of the spectrum.

Did he overshoot? Maybe, but don't tell that to the current, ascendant GOP. Part of his legacy is a Republican Party that's now at parity with Democrats after generations of lopsided Demo-rule. Conclusion: A President's budget deficit isn't the only measure of the man.

Let's listen to Merle set the scene on the seething Sixties in a redneck anthem that ought to make John Kerry's blood run cold:

I hear people talking bad

About the way we have to live here in the country.

Harping on the wars we fight

And griping 'bout the way things ought to be.

And I don't mind 'em switching sides

And standing up for things they believe in.

[But] when they're running down my country, man,

They're walking on the fighting side of me...

Yeah, walking on the fighting side of me.

Running down the way of life

Our fighting men have fought and died to keep.

If you don't love it, leave it.

Let this song I'm singing be a warning.

If you're running down my country, man

You're walking on the fighting side of me.

-- Songs I'll Always Sing, Capitol Records, 1976

This brings us to the next part of our little chalk-talk. Critics today deride Reagan's chronic optimism as the charming tic of a small-town naïf. It's true he was a cheery guy by nature, but those closest to him know that he deliberately crafted his radio addresses and podium speeches to radiate an FDR-style sense of confidence amid unsettling times.

YESTERDAY'S MAN, TODAY'S HERO. During a period when everyone from the Club of Rome to academia to the national press was obsessing over the downside of American life and the declining quality of everything, Reagan sought to be a figure of national reassurance. Thus, space exploration to Reagan became more than a NASA program to develop advanced technologies, it was a metaphor for humankind's boundless outward quest.

Even today, when gloomy "declinists" harp on crippling deficits, the likelihood of an entire generation of baby boomers on the dole, and the country's dissolving social bonds, Reagan disciples say: Maybe not. As Merle, and Reagan, knew well, nostalgia for more stable times is a powerful river that runs through American culture. Reagan never hesitated to bob along in its currents.

Wish a buck was still silver;

It was, back when the country was strong.

Back before Elvis; before the Vietnam War came along.

Before the Beatles and Yesterday,

When a man could still work, and still would.

Is the best of the free life behind us now?

Are the good times really over for good?

Are we rolling down hill like a snowball headed for Hell?

With no kind of chance for the Flag or the Liberty Bell?

I wish a Ford and a Chevy

Could still last 20 years, like they should.

Is the best of the free life behind us now?

Are the good times really over for good?

-- Big City, Epic Records, 1981

So now, class, it's time to finish up. What have we learned from a reprise of Merle's greatest hits? Reagan's political sensibility was shaped by a series of gut-level reactions to things he felt had gone haywire in the nation, from waning individualism to declining patriotism. But what set him apart was that he was a reactionary with a vision.

A MAN OF CHARACTER. It was a monochrome vision of an America of neat homes, white-picket fences, happy families, and simple truths -- Thornton Wilder's Our Town, maybe, or almost any Mickey Rooney flick from the Forties. Reagan almost always played the same part: the tall, big-shouldered, upright guy who's a sap for the American Way. That's his movie, and for a long time, it was the nation's movie, too.

It's far too simplistic to denigrate the man's contributions by classing the Reagan Era as a simple, confectionary entertainment of the time. His policies were as sweeping as the grandeur he returned to the Oval Office. And if he were still with us, he'd probably have a wink and a story that began in the days when latte was just a cup of java with a little too much milk in it. Washington bureau chief Walczak covered the Reagan Presidency for BusinessWeek


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