As the Republican presidential hopefuls gather at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library this coming Wednesday evening, there will be, no doubt, a number of attempts to borrow the alchemic allure of President Reagan as each candidate seeks to channel his homespun American exceptionalism. However, the top-tier, including Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, and Mitt Romney, have very little in common with Reagan. They are the product of an angry and twisted exceptionalism steeped in religious certitude, nationalistic fear, and elite entitlement. Perry espouses state’s rights and secession in a manner not heard since Southern Confederates used the same arguments to preserve the institution of slavery. Bachman suggests we deserved our earthquakes and hurricanes as a rebuke of our evil ways, while Romney claims that corporations are people too. At its core, their exceptionalism holds a contempt for Americans—especially for those who do not look like or believe as they do—and for the liberal ideals of the Founding Fathers. Furthermore, while hope is a dirty word for today’s Republicans, commonly derided in the phrase “hope is not a strategy,” hope is exactly what Reagan brought to America. (While President Obama tried too, he has thus far failed.)
Reagan gave Americans access to a special grace that his predecessor Jimmy Carter couldn’t or wouldn’t offer; largely due to the fact Carter was locked in his evangelical revivalist trinity of sin, redemption, and salvation. Where Carter admonished Americans to sacrifice in order to alleviate a “crisis of spirit,” Reagan simply offered Americans absolution. Reagan’s theological innovation was transferring the concept of original sin from the individual to the institution. On the domestic front, Americans were good, while government and its bureaucracies were bad. In foreign relations, the Soviet Union was evil, but Gorbachev (the human) was worthy of Reagan’s respect and consideration. Reagan exalted Americans regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, or even Party affiliation. Reagan’s ire was reserved for communism, not Americans, which he saw as the principal threat to God’s gift to humankind: freedom. Reagan’s America was the chosen land inhabited by chosen people who had a responsibility to the world: to establish a divine imperium of freedom. While Reagan did battle with his political adversaries like Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, when the day was done they would share a drink, a story, and a song.
As charming and effective as Reagan was at attracting political support, it is easy to find fault with his presidency. Besides his promises, government got bigger, deficits swelled, and illegal activities were conducted from the desks of the National Security Council. Reagan never delivered on the social agenda of the Religious Right, although that should have surprised no one; as Governor of California, he allowed abortion to be legalized and he supported gun control. He was often heralded as a great communicator, but he was also a lousy executive. He lived in his own world where too often fantasy trumped fact; where reason was set aside for faith. But, Reagan gave Americans something that the dismissive angst spewed by today’s field of Republicans will never accomplish: Reagan made Americans feel better about themselves.
It is a long road to the election in November 2012, and America is indeed in dire straits. Things might get better by themselves, although right now I’d bet on worse. But, we’ve been here before; there have been many dark days in our history. What’s required now is a humble sense of self, a platform of mutual respect, and above all, the courage to do right by our founders and our children. Reagan’s alchemic American exceptionalism may not be the answer today, but believing in each other and taking personal responsibility to make the country and the world a better place while setting aside certitude, fear, and elitism would honor his legacy in the most worthy manner. Less than one hundred yards from where the Republican candidates will debate Wednesday night is Reagan’s tomb. Above it, carved in granite, reads, “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is a purpose and worth to each and every life.” Reagan loved his God and his country, and he loved Americans. That is a message the Republican candidates would do well to heed.