What is so fundamentally disturbing about the Reagan Administration is that it is the present embodiment of the American Dream. Doonesbury's Duane Delacourt, in charge of symbolism for Carter and Brown, was a parody of the symbols the Left still has to offer--tired repetitions of the idea that politics could be groovy as well as homespun. But what Reagan has done--and it must be seen as some kind of bizarre triumph--has been to reclaim the remnants of the symbolism of the right: the we're-the-really-good-guys syndrome that descends directly from Jefferson and Hoover. And he has accommodated them to the new ground of television, where the heart of the present American lies. We are an America of exit polls, of projection counts, or personality interviews, Reagan knows just how to capture that side of us. He strategically buys time on Saturdays to talk to us, he uses down home language, and he clothes failure and success in the language of stability. In "standing tall," Reagan projects and personifies the psychological reassurance that America craves in this age of nukes and economic calamity.
Robert Dallek's Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism, shows this psychological mastery to be the principal Reagan strength. Reagan is portrayed in the "ideologue as politician," a package of symbolic responses that fit an American need to feel good. Unlike other more traditional books on Reagan--for instance, Lou Cannon's Reagan--Dallek's is a psychological portrait that seeks to explain Reagan's image of himself and the image he portrays to others.
Dallek, a UCLA professor, begins by pausing briefly, but crucially, to examine Reagan's autobiography Where is the Rest of Me?, and a particular episode in which Reagan, a young schoolboy in Dixon, Illinois, remembers seeing his father drunk on the back door-step. The example is illustrative of his general approach; Dallek retrieves from this incident the basic Reagan ethic of self-reliance that Dallek asserts pervades Reagan's policies as president. Moving onward, Dallek tries to show a panoply of instances in which Reagan actions reflect deep-seated personal values. He wants to find the bases of Reagan's abstractionist thought. What explains Reagan's harsh anti-Soviet evangelism? Dallek asks, as an example. "Reagan's rhetoric and actions suggest that in some fundamental way it is a symbolic protest against the state of his own nation." Dallek, in fact, shows rather convincingly that the entire plan of the Reagan administration is really based on two convictions: that big government that discourages personal initiative is wrong and should be demolished, and that the Soviet Union is the extreme example of what America might be if problem one is not soon eradicated.
While Dallek incisively analyzes Reagan's symbolism, he does not, however, sufficiently show the connection between Reagan's values and what America thinks it needs. As other analysts have done less elegantly, Dallek depicts Reagan's symbolism as incredibly simplistic. But why has the sell worked? Here, Dallek is no more probing than the hundreds of other pundits who have asked the same question, and in the end he leaves us nothing but his liberal bitterness. "Reaganomics doesn't work," he proclaims like the rest of the pundits, wondrous at the country's "gullibility." But the point is that we have bought Reaganomics. And we can't put the blame solely on the hard right, no matter what the eggheads think. Reagan swept 44 states in 1980, a fact that mystifies Dallek. "Despite the fact that effective presidents have been more the exception than the rule in our history," he states, "it is difficult to believe that a nation of 226 million people cannot find a more rational, thoughtful and energetic leader with greater self-awareness and a better grip on national and international realities." True enough, but Dallek fails to reach deeper than his liberal frustration to explain the hold Reaganism exerts on the country.
Still, Dallek's psychoanalytic approach is not without merit. In describing the Reagan symbolism, Dallek has hit upon the political nerve that makes him in some ways the Jonathan Schell of anti-Reaganism. Dallek, like the antinuke writer, is trying to assess the psychological impact of a horrible danger--in this case, Reagan's policies. Moreover, like Schell, Dallek describes in encyclopedic detail the features of his awful portrait of the Reagan phenomenon--a survey which reveals journalists and pundits sometimes shocked, sometimes disbelieving, and sometimes simply sardonically amused. The value of the Dallek survey is that, like Schell's Fate of The Earth, it shows the breadth of the Reagan game--the extent to which his is a government of symbols, the depth of the problem. If Dallek, like Schell, seems to offer no realistic solutions, you can't fault him for it. If the success of Reaganism has shown anything, it is that it is hard to beat pure emotion with thoughtful analysis. Dallek's quandary is well phrased by Year's oft-quoted words: "The best lack all conviction but the worst are filled with a passionate intensity." Despite Dallek's best efforts, how to beat back Reagan's passionate intensity remains an unanswered question.