Always Famous

Or, The Electoral Half-Life of Ronald Reagan

How to Cite

Howley, K. (2004). Always Famous: Or, The Electoral Half-Life of Ronald Reagan. M/C Journal, 7(5).
Vol. 7 No. 5 (2004): 'fame'
Published 2004-11-01


A snapshot, not unlike countless photographs likely to be found in any number of family albums, shows two figures sitting on a park bench: an elderly and amiable looking man grins beneath the rim of a golf cap; a young boy of twelve smiles wide for the camera — a rather banal scene, captured on film. And yet, this seemingly innocent and unexceptional photograph was the site of a remarkable and wide ranging discourse — encompassing American conservatism, celebrity politics, and the end of the Cold War — as the image circulated around the globe during the weeklong state funeral of Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th president of the United States.

Taken in 1997 by the young boy’s grandfather, Ukrainian immigrant Yakov Ravin, during a chance encounter with the former president, the snapshot is believed to be the last public photograph of Ronald Reagan. Published on the occasion of the president’s death, the photograph made “instant celebrities” of the boy, now a twenty-year-old college student, Rostik Denenburg and his grand dad. Throughout the week of Reagan’s funeral, the two joined a chorus of dignitaries, politicians, pundits, and “ordinary” Americans praising Ronald Reagan: “The Great Communicator,” the man who defeated Communism, the popular president who restored America’s confidence, strength, and prosperity.

Yes, it was mourning in America again. And the whole world was watching. Not since Princess Diana’s sudden (and unexpected) death, have we witnessed an electronic hagiography of such global proportions. Unlike Diana’s funeral, however, Reagan’s farewell played out in distinctly partisan terms. As James Ridgeway (2004) noted, the Reagan state funeral was “not only face-saving for the current administration, but also perhaps a mask for the American military debacle in Iraq. Not to mention a gesture of America’s might in the ‘war on terror.’” With non-stop media coverage, the weeklong ceremonies provided a sorely needed shot in the arm to the Bush re-election campaign.

Still, whilst the funeral proceedings and the attendant media coverage were undeniably excessive in their deification of the former president, the historical white wash was not nearly so vulgar as the antiseptic send off Richard Nixon received back in 1994. That is to say, the piety of the Nixon funeral was at once startling and galling to many who reviled the man (Lapham). By contrast, given Ronald Reagan’s disarming public persona, his uniquely cordial relationship with the national press corps, and most notably, his handler’s mastery of media management techniques, the Reagan idolatry was neither surprising nor unexpected.

In this brief essay, I want to consider Reagan’s funeral, and his legacy, in relation to what cultural critics, referring to the production of celebrity, have described as “fame games” (Turner, Bonner & Marshall). Specifically, I draw on the concept of “flashpoints” — moments of media excess surrounding a particular personage — in consideration of the Reagan funeral. Throughout, I demonstrate how Reagan’s death and the attendant media coverage epitomize this distinctive feature of contemporary culture.

Furthermore, I observe Reagan’s innovative approaches to electoral politics in the age of television. Here, I suggest that Reagan’s appropriation of the strategies and techniques associated with advertising, marketing and public relations were decisive, not merely in terms of his electoral success, but also in securing his lasting fame. I conclude with some thoughts on the implications of Reagan’s legacy on historical memory, contemporary politics, and what neoconservatives, the heirs of the Reagan Revolution, gleefully describe as the New American Century.

The Magic Hour

On the morning of 12 June 2004, the last day of the state funeral, world leaders eulogized Reagan, the statesmen, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Among the A-List political stars invited to speak were Margaret Thatcher, former president George H. W. Bush and, to borrow Arundhati Roi’s useful phrase, “Bush the Lesser.” Reagan’s one-time Cold War adversary, Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as former Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were also on hand, but did not have speaking parts. Former Reagan administration officials, Supreme Court justices, and congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle rounded out a guest list that read like a who’s who of the American political class.

All told, Reagan’s weeklong sendoff was a state funeral at its most elaborate. It had it all—the flag draped coffin, the grieving widow, the riderless horse, and the procession of mourners winding their way through the Rotunda of the US Capitol. In this last regard, Reagan joined an elite group of seven presidents, including four who died by assassination — Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy — to be honored by having his remains lie in state in the Rotunda.

But just as the deceased president was product of the studio system, so too, the script for the Gipper’s swan song come straight out of Hollywood. Later that day, the Reagan entourage made one last transcontinental flight back to the presidential library in Simi Valley, California for a private funeral service at sunset. In Hollywood parlance, the “magic hour” refers to the quality of light at dusk. It is an ideal, but ephemeral time favored by cinematographers, when the sunlight takes on a golden glow lending grandeur, nostalgia, and oftentimes, a sense of closure to a scene. This was Ronald Reagan’s final moment in the sun: a fitting end for an actor of the silver screen, as well as for the president who mastered televisual politics.

In a culture so thoroughly saturated with the image, even the death of a minor celebrity is an occasion to replay film clips, interviews, paparazzi photos and the like. Moreover, these “flashpoints” grow in intensity and frequency as promotional culture, technological innovation, and the proliferation of new media outlets shape contemporary media culture. They are both cause and consequence of these moments of media excess. And, as Turner, Bonner and Marshall observe, “That is their point. It is their disproportionate nature that makes them so important: the scale of their visibility, their overwhelmingly excessive demonstration of the power of the relationship between mass-mediated celebrities and the consumers of popular culture” (3-4). B-Movie actor, corporate spokesman, state governor and, finally, US president, Ronald Reagan left an extraordinary photographic record. Small wonder, then, that Reagan’s death was a “flashpoint” of the highest order: an orgy of images, a media spectacle waiting to happen.

After all, Reagan appeared in over 50 films during his career in Hollywood. Publicity stills and clips from Reagan’s film career, including Knute Rockne, All American, the biopic that earned Reagan his nickname “the Gipper”, King’s Row, and Bedtime for Bonzo provided a surreal, yet welcome respite from television’s obsessive (some might say morbidly so) live coverage of Reagan’s remains making their way across country.

Likewise, archival footage of Reagan’s political career — most notably, images of the 1981 assassination attempt; his quip “not to make age an issue” during the 1984 presidential debate; and his 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate demanding that Soviet President Gorbachev, “tear down this wall” — provided the raw materials for press coverage that thoroughly dominated the global mediascape.

None of which is to suggest, however, that the sheer volume of Reagan’s photographic record is sufficient to account for the endless replay and reinterpretation of Reagan’s life story. If we are to fully comprehend Reagan’s fame, we must acknowledge his seminal engagement with promotional culture, “a professional articulation between the news and entertainment media and the sources of publicity and promotion” (Turner, Bonner & Marshall 5) in advancing an extraordinary political career.

Hitting His Mark

In a televised address supporting Barry Goldwater’s nomination for the presidency delivered at the 1964 Republican Convention, Ronald Reagan firmly established his conservative credentials and, in so doing, launched one of the most remarkable and influential careers in American politics.

Political scientist Gerard J. De Groot makes a compelling case that the strategy Reagan and his handlers developed in the 1966 California gubernatorial campaign would eventually win him the presidency. The centerpiece of this strategy was to depict the former actor as a political outsider. Crafting a persona he described as “citizen politician,” Reagan’s great appeal and enormous success lie in his uncanny ability to project an image founded on traditional American values of hard work, common sense and self-determination. Over the course of his political career, Reagan’s studied optimism and “no-nonsense” approach to public policy would resonate with an electorate weary of career politicians.

Charming, persuasive, and seemingly “authentic,” Reagan ran gubernatorial and subsequent presidential campaigns that were distinctive in that they employed sophisticated public relations and marketing techniques heretofore unknown in the realm of electoral politics. The 1966 Reagan gubernatorial campaign took the then unprecedented step of employing an advertising firm, Los Angeles-based Spencer-Roberts, in shaping the candidate’s image. Leveraging their candidate’s ease before the camera, the Reagan team crafted a campaign founded upon a sophisticated grasp of the television industry, TV news routines, and the medium’s growing importance to electoral politics.

For instance, in the days before the 1966 Republican primary, the Reagan team produced a five-minute film using images culled from his campaign appearances. Unlike his opponent, whose television spots were long-winded, amateurish and poorly scheduled pieces that interrupted popular programs, like Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Reagan’s short film aired in the early evening, between program segments (De Groot). Thus, while his opponent’s television spot alienated viewers, the Reagan team demonstrated a formidable appreciation not only for televisual style, but also, crucially, a sophisticated understanding of the nuances of television scheduling, audience preferences and viewing habits.

Over the course of his political career, Reagan refined his media driven, media directed campaign strategy. An analysis of his 1980 presidential campaign reveals three dimensions of Reagan’s increasingly sophisticated media management strategy (Covington et al.). First, the Reagan campaign carefully controlled their candidate’s accessibility to the press. Reagan’s penchant for potentially damaging off-the-cuff remarks and factual errors led his advisors to limit journalists’ interactions with the candidate.

Second, the character of Reagan’s public appearances, including photo opportunities and especially press conferences, grew more formal. Reagan’s interactions with the press corps were highly structured affairs designed to control which reporters were permitted to ask questions and to help the candidate anticipate questions and prepare responses in advance.

Finally, the Reagan campaign sought to keep the candidate “on message.” That is to say, press releases, photo opportunities and campaign appearances focused on a single, consistent message. This approach, known as the Issue of the Day (IOD) media management strategy proved indispensable to advancing the administration’s goals and achieving its objectives. Not only was the IOD strategy remarkably effective in influencing press coverage of the Reagan White House, this coverage promoted an overwhelmingly positive image of the president. As the weeklong funeral amply demonstrated, Reagan was, and remains, one of the most popular presidents in modern American history.

Reagan’s popular (and populist) appeal is instructive inasmuch as it illuminates the crucial distinction between “celebrity and its premodern antecedent, fame” observed by historian Charles L. Ponce de Leone (13). Whereas fame was traditionally bestowed upon those whose heroism and extraordinary achievements distinguished them from common people, celebrity is a defining feature of modernity, inasmuch as celebrity is “a direct outgrowth of developments that most of us regard as progressive: the spread of the market economy and the rise of democratic, individualistic values” (Ponce de Leone 14). On one hand, then, Reagan’s celebrity reflects his individualism, his resolute faith in the primacy of the market, and his defense of “traditional” (i.e. democratic) American values. On the other hand, by emphasizing his heroic, almost supernatural achievements, most notably his vanquishing of the “Evil Empire,” the Reagan mythology serves to lift him “far above the common rung of humanity” raising him to “the realm of the divine” (Ponce de Leone 14).

Indeed, prior to his death, the Reagan faithful successfully lobbied Congress to create secular shrines to the standard bearer of American conservatism. For instance, in 1998, President Clinton signed a bill that officially rechristened one of the US capitol’s airports to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. More recently, conservatives working under the aegis of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project have called for the creation of even more visible totems to the Reagan Revolution, including replacing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s profile on the dime with Reagan’s image and, more dramatically, inscribing Reagan in stone, alongside Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore (Gordon). Therefore, Reagan’s enduring fame rests not only on the considerable symbolic capital associated with his visual record, but also, increasingly, upon material manifestations of American political culture.

The High Stakes of Media Politics

What are we to make of Reagan’s fame and its implications for America? To begin with, we must acknowledge Reagan’s enduring influence on modern electoral politics. Clearly, Reagan’s “citizen politician” was a media construct — the masterful orchestration of ideological content across the institutional structures of news, public relations and marketing. While some may suggest that Reagan’s success was an anomaly, a historical aberration, a host of politicians, and not a few celebrities — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Arnold Schwarzenegger among them — emulate Reagan’s style and employ the media management strategies he pioneered.

Furthermore, we need to recognize that the Reagan mythology that is so thoroughly bound up in his approach to media/politics does more to obscure, rather than illuminate the historical record. For instance, in her (video taped) remarks at the funeral service, Margaret Thatcher made the extraordinary claim — a central tenet of the Reagan Revolution — that Ronnie won the cold war “without firing a shot.” Such claims went unchallenged, at least in the establishment press, despite Reagan’s well-documented penchant for waging costly and protracted proxy wars in Afghanistan, Africa, and Central America. Similarly, the Reagan hagiography failed to acknowledge the decisive role Gorbachev and his policies of “reform” and “openness” — Perestroika and Glasnost — played in the ending of the Cold War.

Indeed, Reagan’s media managed populism flies in the face of what radical historian Howard Zinn might describe as a “people’s history” of the 1980s. That is to say, a broad cross-section of America — labor, racial and ethnic minorities, environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists among them — rallied in vehement opposition to Reagan’s foreign and domestic policies. And yet, throughout the weeklong funeral, the divisiveness of the Reagan era went largely unnoted. In the Reagan mythology, then, popular demonstrations against an unprecedented military build up, the administration’s failure to acknowledge, let alone intervene in the AIDS epidemic, and the growing disparity between rich and poor that marked his tenure in office were, to borrow a phrase, relegated to the dustbin of history.

In light of the upcoming US presidential election, we ought to weigh how Reagan’s celebrity squares with the historical record; and, equally important, how his legacy both shapes and reflects the realities we confront today. Whether we consider economic and tax policy, social services, electoral politics, international relations or the domestic culture wars, Reagan’s policies and practices continue to determine the state of the union and inform the content and character of American political discourse. Increasingly, American electoral politics turns on the pithy soundbite, the carefully orchestrated pseudo-event, and a campaign team’s unwavering ability to stay on message. Nowhere is this more evident than in Ronald Reagan’s unmistakable influence upon the current (and illegitimate) occupant of the White House.

Author Biography

Kevin Howley