I blame many things.
For one thing, the 1970s were good to my family. Oil prices were high. While a stumbling block for most American families, my father was a geologist specializing in domestic petroleum exploration. Due to the oil shock, his skills were in high demand. He was well paid and our family prospered. We had all the Star Wars action figures that money could buy.
The 1980s were less kind. The price of oil plunged and soon there was no need for geologists specializing in domestic petroleum exploration. Indeed, an entire generation would pass before that skill set was in demand again. By then it was too late. My father never worked in his field again, subsisting on the occasional odd job or failed business scheme until he was well past retirement age. Things were tight for years afterward.
Another thing: much of my initial self-education came from a 1964 set of Collier’s Encyclopedias my parents had purchased right after they first got married. It was a good investment from my perspective. After I developed an interest in military history, the trusty encyclopedias became a more useful source of knowledge on military history topics than my parents or siblings limited knowledge (or interest) in the subject. As an accidental side effect, I developed a wide range of historical knowledge (for a pre-adolescent). As Bartholomew J. Simpson once observed, acquiring facts through study and retaining them in memory is like a whole new way to cheat.
However, there was a vacuüm. My knowledge of history after 1964 was limited to personal experience, what I read in the papers or saw on the TV news, or picked up through anecdotes from family and friends. The second half of the 1960s and the 1970s were a historical black hole. I was completely oblivious to the existence of the Great Society, hippies, Vietnam, Watergate, the Oil Shock, malaise, or other events of that period.
Perhaps I was blessed.
Once, while sleeping over at my grandparents, I was reading through a 1969 Smithsonian Institution illustrated history of the American presidency that my grandparents had picked up while vacationing in Washington, D.C. While the trusty family encyclopedias ended with Lyndon Baines Johnson as president, this book surprised me by showing Nixon as president. When your knowledge of American history ends in 1964, you only know Nixon as Eisenhower’s vice-president and a loser of the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California gubernatorial election. Poor Dick Nixon was overshadowed by the glamor of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who my mother took a shine too after he and Jackie waved at her from an open car as they were campaigning in our city in 1960.
The concept of Nixon as president was almost unbelievable.
I immediately went and asked the first convenient adult, my grandfather, about this strange new fact. That’s when I learned that Richard Milhouse Nixon was evil incarnate. My grandfather was the kindest and most saintly men I’ve ever known but his entire tone telegraphed that Nixon was an original spawn of hell, an direct emanation of Satan’s power onto this Earth. I’ve only heard a tone of hatred and bitterness more intense than that once and that was when my even kinder and even more saintly aunt talked about Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California).
My state is the most Republican in the Union. Those who called conservatives elsewhere are called “moderates” here. The rest of my family reflected the local political culture. My parents at that point were not particularly vocal about politics. They were quietly civic-minded and voted regularly. My father always voted Republican while my mother would vote Democratic if so inclined. From 1960 on she voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election until she voted for Perot in 1992.
My grandfather was, unusually, a staunch Democrat. He’d worked in one of the few blue-collar industries in our state and had been a staunch union man. As an honest man of integrity and a Democrat, Nixon’s actions during Watergate were deeply offensive. He shared his opinion of Nixon with me and that was my formative knowledge of Tricky Dick as president. I can’t say my current opinion is much different from my grandfathers.
Another thing may have just been timing. As an extremely young child, he was the man who appeared on TV. On President’s Day, instead of drawing a picture of Honest Abe or Gorgeous George, I drew this president. Something lodged in my brain and it was years before I acquired sense enough to purge it out.
The result of these and other things like cosmic rays and continuous neutrino bombardment was, when fifth grade rolled around and we had the opportunity to dress up and present a report about a American historical figure, my choice was not fortuitous. While my classmates dressed up and did reports on presidents, inventors, authors, and other important people, I did mine on an evil peanut baron. My costume was not elaborate. I put on a tannish Sunday shirt, rolled up the sleeves, and for all intents and purposes became James Earl Carter, Junior, peanut dynast and woebegone thirty-ninth President of the United States. The only way that day of woe when I gave my report while dressed up in a Sunday shirt with rolled up sleeves could have been redeemed would have been if I’d had a classmate to throw a stuffed killer bunny at me.
The first historical event I remember was the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979. CBS had two-minute news segments called In the News interspersed with Saturday morning cartoons. On these, I remember seeing the Shah of Iran in these even though I had no idea who the Shah was or what Iran was. I remember the adults in my family talking about hostages (whatever they were) and there was a general sense of unease in the air. I remember when Reagan was elected and my mother mentioning that Reagan used to be an actor. For a while, for whatever reason, my young brain pictured our new president as fellow actor Lorne Greene as he appeared on the contemporary TV show Battlestar Galactica.
From first grade I remember being was herded along with the rest of the student body into a dark room where we spent two hours watching news coverage of John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. The following year Reagan visited Billings, Montana, where my family was living at the time, and the whole town turned out. I remember sonorously voiced commercials explaining how much Montana needed Ronald Reagan. I even remember a billboard announcing the visit. My mother, my oldest brother, and my sister went out and stood along the motorcade route. Reagan waved at them. I’m not sure where I was but apparently as a seven-year old I had more important things to do than waiting to see the Leader of the Free World.
As the decade unfolded, I accumulated a right-wing worldview by osmosis from the environment around me and from a subscription to that notorious right-wing rag that my grandmother gave us every year: Reader’s Digest. It’s hard to overestimate the influence of Reader’s Digest. If my grandmother was concerned with the political education of her grandchildren, she never spent a dollar more wisely or more effectively than she did when she paid for our annual subscription to Reader;s Digest. It more than counterbalanced the increasingly left-wing turn that National Geographic, the subscription my other grandparents gave us every year, eventually took.
I felt the reinvigoration of American pride that Reagan fed during his term. The local culture in which I grew up was extremely patriotic anyway. However, the banishment of the clouds of Carterly malaise was clear even to a young child. The martial virtues were preached during those years and my interest in military history partially flows from that influence. G.I. Joe was a real American hero and the Ruskies were the bad guys. I would draw maps and redo the borders of the world in a future era when the Soviet Union was gone. I did it with more abandon than ten Sykes and Picot at an imperialist bender. I had no idea that the Soviet Union would be gone within six years and largely peacefully instead of a global conflagration. Peaceful falls and peaceful rises are better for the people of this earth overall but less appealing to nine-year old boys with action figures.
The outcome of Reagan and his administration on future events is not fully apparent. I’m sure we’ll get more ideas on that as this roundtable proceeds. However, for a child growing up in the 1980s, Reagan was the ideal president. Whether he was a good president or not really didn’t matter to a pre-teen just like it didn’t really matter if Douglas MacArthur was a great general or not. Douglas MacArthur played a great general for the newsreels and Ronald Reagan played a great president on TV. Those who overlook the advantage that acting talent gives to a president ignore a strength that Reagan shared with his idol Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Once, at a dinner party, FDR supposedly leaned over to Orson Welles and whispered, “Mr. Welles, you and I are the two best actors in America.” For many Americans, the detailed policy fluctuations of the New Deal didn’t matter. The New Deal was one of the great stage dramas of the Golden Age of American entertainment and FDR was its most consummate performer. The personal impact of FDR on my grandparents was clear even fifty years later.
FDR may or may not have been a great president but he played one on the radio and on film.
Herbert Hoover, like James Earl Carter Junior, was an engineer and engineers make poor actors. They have a mind of metal and machine and tangible stuff that can be measured and quantified. FDR and Reagan were actors, shapers of dreams, architects of imagination, and carvers of flesh and blood people. Like nerds playing filler minutes on the basketball court, Hoover and Carter are only there to be dunked on by the more hip and happening FDR and Reagan. All history ever says to the Hoovers and the Carters as it flies by is, “Get out of my way and into my poster.”