I was not sure how much I cared about My Father at 100, Ron Reagan’s biography of his father. However, The New York Review selected Russell Baker to cover this book; and I never seem to be disappointed when I read Baker. Sure enough, Baker hit on a sentence that uses the Warner Brothers film Knute Rockne, All American to encapsulate the relationship between the Reagan of Hollywood and the Reagan of the White House:
Hailed as “the Gipper” for years after George Gipp had disappeared from memory, Reagan had seen show business’s power to make the impossible dream come true: the world of let’s pretend had brought him a make-believe glory more glorious than the real thing.
In other words, within the terminology of semiotics, Reagan the actor became an icon whose signification was more powerful than that of the individual originally signified. It was, in fact, a signification that not only disregarded reality but also transcended it.
I suspect that most of us would like to transcend reality, particularly when it is unbearably harsh. I would propose that the sociological value of faith, so to speak, involves the promise it offers of such transcendence and the commitment of the faithful to buy into that promise whether or not it shows any sign of being fulfilled. Within this framework, of course, monetary value also arises from an act of faith; and one might suggest that the viability of any market is tightly coupled to its capacity to regulate itself through “reality checks,” rather than promises of “make-believe glory.”
Thus, what was particularly insidious about the Reagan myth was that it encouraged the belief that anyone could transcend reality, thus “denying the reality” of the complex combinations of factors that led Reagan from childhood pastimes to Hollywood and then to a successful career in politics. In the context of current behavioral patterns, one might say that Reagan established himself as a “war hero” in what I like to call the “war against reality.” In earlier days those who exhibited heroic behavior furthering the transcendence of reality would earn themselves congregations. Reagan demonstrated that they could just as easily earn themselves votes; and today’s normative political behavior may well be his most enduring legacy.