“Sarah Palin’s Alaska” didn’t debut until Sunday night, but the former governor has been defending it for weeks. After Karl Rove wondered how a reality show fit “the American calculus of ‘that helps me see you in the Oval Office,’” Fox News gave Palin a chance to respond. “You know, I agree with that,” she said. “Those standards have to be high for someone who would ever want to run for president, like, um, wasn’t Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn’t he in ‘Bedtimes for Bonzo,’ ‘Bozo’ or something?”
The movie was “Bedtime for Bonzo,” but no matter: What Palin should have mentioned was " General Electric Theater,” the television show Reagan hosted and occasionally starred in from 1954 to 1962. It would have made Palin’s point nicely. Instead, her comment hinted at a different one altogether: that Palin has an appallingly and disturbingly superficial knowledge of Reagan’s career and principles.
Yet Palin keeps waving Reagan’s name around as a promotional brand -- and, even worse, as a substitute for her own policies. Indeed, “Reagan” provides Palin with an all-purpose analogy, an analogy that allows her to avoid discussing particulars or advancing new ideas.
This is about more than mixing up Reagan’s biographical minutiae, though Palin does that. This is about how -- and why -- the former governor deploys Reagan. Take foreign policy. After her February keynote at the National Tea Party Convention -- which she began by chirping, “Happy birthday, Ronald Reagan!” -- Palin took questions. One of them was about national security. “It’s easy to just kind of sum it up by repeating Ronald Reagan when he talked about the Cold War,” Palin explained. “And we can apply this now to our war on terrorism, you know. Bottom line, we win, they lose.”
Palin loves to repeat Reagan’s Cold War quip, though she sometimes adds a personal twist that raises the vindictiveness level: we win, you lose. In April, after Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START treaty, Palin went on Fox News and argued that “no administration in America’s history” would have supported such a reduction in nuclear weapons. “We miss Ronald Reagan,” Palin added, “who used to say when he would look at our enemies and say, ‘No, you lose, we win.’”
This completely ignores Reagan’s own breakthrough efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, most prominently through his meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan considered these some of his presidency’s most important moments -- and even insisted that the first one serve as the opening to his presidential memoir, “An American Life.” “I understood the irony of what happened,” Reagan wrote, acknowledging his “we win” image. But he didn’t let it stop him from sitting down with Gorbachev in Geneva and later in Reykjavik.
Palin’s version of Reagan simply cannot allow for such nuance. Instead, she uses him to simplify issues and to skip serious thinking. Reagan frequently pops up in Palin’s memoir, “Going Rogue,” with many of the citations clustered in her final (and shortest) chapter, “The Way Forward.” Reagan and the economy, Reagan and domestic policy -- whatever the subject, Palin’s method remains the same: Draw an easy analogy between Reagan’s era and our own, then move on.
Lots of Republicans invoke Reagan (remember the presidential primary season in 2008, when the GOP’s White House hopefuls kept trying to out-Reagan each other?), just as lots of Democrats invoke FDR -- and just as everyone invokes the Founding Fathers. But there are better and worse ways to do this. Palin’s Reagan actually resembles the “tea party’s” Founding Fathers. In both cases, historical figures become references not to start discussion, but to shut it down.
Which brings us to Palin’s most egregious analogy: that she and Ronald Reagan are alike. As she has upped her number of candidate-like appearances, Palin has also upped her Reagan references. In September, she headlined the Iowa Republican Party’s Ronald Reagan Dinner. (A sample line: “The Obama administration foreign policy is a far cry from Ronald Reagan days.”) Last month, at another high-profile Republican event, this one in Florida and behind closed doors, Palin reportedly defended her presidential chances by pointing out that Reagan’s critics claimed he, too, was unelectable, until he won the presidency.
Indeed. In 1976, an Esquire profile of Reagan appeared with the following headline: “Would you buy a used car from this man? Of course you would. That’s the problem.” But Palin’s trajectory and Reagan’s don’t match. Reagan used his status as an entertainer to become a politician; Palin is using her status as a politician to become an entertainer.
Reagan also spent time reading, thinking and testing his political philosophy. In addition to hosting “General Electric Theater,” Reagan toured the company’s plants, developing and delivering an ultimately anti-government manifesto that came to be known as “The Speech.” When Esquire asked Reagan about his conversion from FDR Democrat to Goldwater Republican, he responded not by dropping names but by describing a process: “It wasn’t any case of some mentor coming in and talking me out of it. I did it in my own speeches.”
Reagan couldn’t escape charges of unseriousness. But the truth is, he worked on his content, in addition to his image.
On this count, Palin falls disastrously short. Maybe that’s why she didn’t compare her show to Reagan’s “General Electric Theater” -- and, implicitly, to the personal and political transformation that came with it. Or maybe she doesn’t even know the show existed. This summer, speaking to a California crowd, Palin suggested that “it was destiny that the man who went to California’s Eureka College would become so woven within and interlinked to the Golden State.” Reagan’s alma mater is in Eureka, Ill. It was embarrassing, but apparently not for Palin. For her purposes, the details -- and a whole lot more -- simply do not matter.
Craig Fehrman is at work on a book about presidents and their books.