Feb. 6, 2011, marks the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan. The following is an excerpt taken from an essay titled Always Famous: Or, the Electoral Half-life of Ronald Reagan that considered Reagan’s legacy following his state funeral in June 2004. -- kh
What are we to make of Ronald 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, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Barack Obama among them -- emulate Reagan’s style and employ the media management strategies he pioneered.
"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."
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 (videotaped) remarks at Reagan’s funeral service, former British Prime Minister 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 antinuclear 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.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at