Sobran Column -- The Reagan Cult
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The Reagan Cult

October 7, 1999

A week ago conservatives were debating whether Pat Buchanan is still a conservative. Now they’re debating whether George W. Bush is a conservative.

G.W. has fallen into the habit of self-extolment, at the expense of his party and some of his supporters. He offers himself as the advocate of “compassionate conservatism.” This annoys other conservatives by its suggestion that compassion is alien to them, just as his father’s “kinder, gentler” vision suggested that Ronald Reagan’s presidency wasn’t sufficiently kind and gentle.

Now G.W. Bush has taken a couple of whacks at the Republican Congress, first for “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” — the very words Bill Clinton and countless other liberals have used — and now for their pessimism about an America “slouching toward Gomorrah.” The latter phrase was a mocking allusion to the title of a book by Judge Robert Bork, who is held in high esteem by “cultural” conservatives.

But all this arguing about who’s a conservative omits one thing: a helpful definition of conservatism. In the conservative movement, only one certitude remains: the Reagan cult. Most conservatives still believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but Reagan runs a close fourth.

Republican presidential candidates invoke Reagan’s “legacy” and compare themselves to him at every opportunity; those who served in his administration — as advisors, speechwriters, cabinet officers — drop his name constantly (“As Ronald Reagan used to say ...”). What lends all this a touch of grim comedy is that today Ronald Reagan can remember none of these old intimates.

These candidates likewise attack each other with charges that their rivals have departed from the Ways of Reagan. Bush and Buchanan have been variously accused of abandoning Reagan’s warmth, optimism, vision, toughness, internationalism, etc. Like God, Reagan comprehends every perfection, and the flesh is flawed to the degree that it doesn’t resemble Reagan. Reagan has ascended to the plane of a Platonic form, a pure essence unsullied by lower matter, as witness the old conservative slogan “Let Reagan be Reagan.” Only “the people around Reagan” — wimpy poll-obsessed aides and advisors — were preventing him from being himself. (As one exasperated wag quipped: “Let someone else be Reagan.”)

Thus candidate Gary Bauer replies to G.W. Bush with a dual invocation of Reagan: “Yes, conservatives need to embrace the buoyant optimism of Ronald Reagan about our country’s future. But we also need to be grounded in Ronald Reagan’s realism.” It all reminds one of the days when the Chinese appealed all questions to the great icon of Mao Zedong, even when Mao himself was silent: “We must be true to Chairman Mao’s socialist vision,” one side would say. “Yes,” the other side would reply, “but we must also remember that Chairman Mao was a great pragmatist, never fettered by dogma.” The only question was which of Mao’s myriad virtues was most relevant at the moment.

In 1988 George H.W. Bush won the presidency by running as Ronald Reagan. He trailed Michael Dukakis in the polls until he gave a stirring convention speech — “Read my lips: No new taxes!” — ghostwritten by Reagan’s poet laureate, Peggy Noonan. Bush won by a landslide, then enraged Reaganites by agreeing to new taxes.

I once teased my old friend and colleague William Rusher for being a total Reagan apologist. “Bill,” I told him, “whenever Reagan does something awful, you defend it on one of two grounds: either that Reagan had no choice, or that the full wisdom of his action will be disclosed to lesser mortals in God’s good time.” Unshaken, Bill instantly replied, “May I point out that the two positions are not necessarily incompatible?”

Reagan’s authorized biographer, Edmund Morris, frustrated in his search for the “real” Reagan, encountered, in his many interviews with his subject, only an “airhead” and a “bore.” Poor Morris was driven to write the most eccentric biography of our time, with a fictional character where Reagan should have been.

It’s high time to face it: the “real” Reagan beloved of conservatives never existed outside their imaginations.

Joseph Sobran

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