LOS ANGELES -- This is the story behind the story, as they like to say out here:
Ronald Reagan is more than a man. He is an idea. He is a movement. He is a party. He is a secular religion. He is, for all practical purposes, still president of the United States. He is not to be trifled with, as CBS television has learned.
Characterizing the 40th president as a mean old dolt, which is apparently what CBS had in mind when it shot the docudrama "The Reagans," is an astonishingly foolish piece of business. It is historically stupid, politically incorrect and commercially insane. The powers that be in television might as well have produced a comedy in 1960 making fun of the way Franklin Delano Roosevelt walked.
FDR is the only valid comparison now to the standing of Ronald Reagan in the American heart and mind. For more than 20 years after his presidency (and death), Roosevelt was the Democratic Party and the face of liberalism. Reagan, 15 years after coming home, is the Republican Party and the face of conservatism. In fact, he is still running the White House, a repository for his men and his ideas.
"Reaganism." The word itself validates the man's impact. How many presidents could claim such a legacy? Even Roosevelt had to settle for the "New Deal." It was Reaganism, the force of the man himself, that united the babbling brooks of American conservatism into a mighty river at the end of the 1970s. The Baptists of the New South, the Episcopals of the Northeast, the Catholic workingmen of the great middle and the Jewish neoconservatives all found what they needed in Reaganism -- what they needed was a way to stop talking and start governing. That was the gift of Reagan.
And they are still together, moving back into the White House after waiting out the Clinton years in Congress and think tanks, hiding behind the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. They are still united by the thrilling lines of Reaganism: less government, lower taxes, more military and self-righteous patriotism. They are grateful to Reagan and his "ism," and well they should be, because without him there is only the old wilderness. That gratitude helped drive their hatred of Bill Clinton, that Bible-carrying interloper -- and their rage at CBS. Slapping down the network was child's play for them, at least compared to cornering the wily boy from Hope.
So any attack on Reagan is an attack on all and each of them. They are ever ready for a crusade against nonbelievers -- even if this latest episode shows they wildly overestimate the resistance of what they promote as "liberal elites." The liberal media? CBS? Those artifacts of other times and technologies are dominating only in the imagination of Reagan's followers. But such adversaries are essential to maintaining the rage of the Right and the righteous.
My own politics are quite different from Reaganism, but I have always admired the awesome skills and tenacity of the old charmer himself. A truly great politician, he was always underestimated and often derided as just a guy who used to be an actor. Yeah, so was Shakespeare. I was surprised to read a letter he wrote to me in the book "Reagan: A Life in Letters," the latest in a long line of spinners generated and subsidized by the Hoover Institution and other think tanks and foundations trying to have the name of Mount Rushmore changed to ... well, you know.
The reason for my surprise was that I don't remember ever receiving the 1975 note inviting me to stop by and chat about an article I wrote in New York magazine predicting that the next president would be Reagan or Jimmy Carter. I thought then that those two outsiders were the candidates who best understood that Washington, disgust with Washington, would be the great issue of 1976 and beyond. Carter, of course, made it first, but Reagan toppled him with a much purer message in 1980. The difference was that Carter came to blame the people, while Reagan celebrated America and Americans.
The reason I don't think I ever got the letter was that I would have accepted the invitation from Reagan, whom I first met in 1967. I might have been able to change his mind about a few things. Right! Fat chance. I disagreed with him then and now about many things. But I am only one among the many, and tens of millions agreed with him and some worshipped him then and now.
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