“I wonder what it’s all about, and why
We suffer so, when little things go wrong?
We make our life a struggle
When life should be a song…”
We should perhaps we grateful that the teenage Ronald Reagan never grew up to be a full time poet, judging from this extract from “Life” that got published in his college magazine. Though it does suggest that in 1928 jocks like this lively American football player weren’t afraid to embrace their gentler side and go fora more Renaissance man profile.It’s one of the many gems on display in his presidential library in Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles that makes me wonder at the political cultural gulf between the US and Britain.
Of course it’s biased. Rupert Murdoch is one of the trustees of the museum charity. But the attempt to put one’s career up for public display – a kind of physical combination of eulogy, memoir and public record office (the thousands of documents in the archive all available for scholars and historians) – is a fascinating idea. For the thrill seeker there’s the original Air Force One to climb aboard and an exact reconstruction of his Oval Office (fascinating in a way you never get to see in movies or on TV).
My first real memory of Reagan is the Not The Nine O’ Clock News spoof after his election in 1980 when they sang a cowboy song about how they couldn’t believe he was President. Visiting the Library days after watching Trump in action at the Republican National Convention, I wince as I compare the two men. What cynical critics undervalued at the time, was Reagan’s true ability as a communicator, a skill first developed from visiting factory floors and small towns all over America as a radio announcer. The yellow legal pads he used to write up and amend speeches are fascinating for his notes and re-drafts.
His brush with death is presented dramatically: the footage of the assassination attempt on a loop; the suit he wore on display – the bullet hole and faint bloodstains visible – next to an exact replica of the gun used. The documents on display include the handwritten letter of April 1981 which he composed while still recovering from the shooting. Sent to Brezhnev, against state department officials’ advice, it was a man-to-man approach seeking a way forward on nuclear disarmament: “Is it possible that we have let ideology keep us from considering the very real everyday problems of the people we represent?”Walking through the foreign policy section with dramatic footage of the history of the Berlin Wall, there’s even a section on the Iran Contra affair – when it emerged the government was selling weapons to Tehran – to fund Contra rebels in central America. Seeing how the world looked to a leader of his generation,who saw Communism as their greatest threat, is a useful insight.
The satirists’ view of the deluded B-movie actor has evidence there too – the many films he made allegedly fuelling a mental confusion decades later that he HAD served in World War Two, rather than in the US Military’s film unit. The telegrams a besotted husband sent to his wife are both sweet and unsettlingly childish: “Mrs Reagan if you are going to be home in the morning I wonder if I might drop in on account of I love you.”
Is there an inherent American national pride, beyond anything else that explains the Presidential Library system, because these are leaders voted for by direct election? Or is powerful corporate and individual support the big secret? When Lady Thatcher’s children auctioned off her clothes it seemed obvious that Britain at the very least needed a Smithsonian-style repository for objects of national interest. Of course that would mean their offspring donating, not expecting to maximize earnings by selling off Mummy’s clothes or in the recent past, Daddy Churchill’s papers. And with Tony Blair’s legacy so overwhelmingly tarnished in public discourse now by the Iraq War it’s hard to see any hope of such a library system anytime soon.
But understanding how our leaders saw the world and how they tried to present themselves (Reagan as an early advocate of alternative energy is one of the more intriguing displays) can only be useful. I can imagine Churchill’s playing down the disaster of Gallipoli and his early enthusiasm for eugenics. It’s not likely to be a popular idea in these politician-loathing times. But a British Museum of Political Artefacts at least. For that I’d campaign.
This article first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Journalism worth paying for. Available from street vendors or subscribe here