Thursday, March 03, 2011

Ronald Reagan, The Religion: Day 2 At The Reagan Library

A piece of the Berlin wall at the RRPL
This morning at breakfast I was shamelessly eavesdropping on a group of men who, I came to understand, are local car dealers.  I suspect that they are also the kind of guys who meet once or twice a week for breakfast because they like each others' company and it gives them a chance to have a real conversation at least once that day.  As I sat down at the next table, one of them was holding forth about hybrid and electric cars.  "The part I don't get," he said to his friends, "is that the people who buy them are actually believing the horse pucky that electric vehicles are better for the environment than gas powered vehicles."

"Yeah, well just wait until someone gets stuck out in the desert in one," his friend said.  They all contemplated that for a while.  "It's just like all the opposition to nuclear energy," another one of the guys volunteered. "More people get killed in Iraq in a month than have ever been killed by radiation."  The others agreed, and one added:  "Liberals spend too much time listening to conspiracy theories."

You cannot make this $hit up.  You cannot.  I wish I could come back for the Rotary Club lunch later today.

People, my friends, are primary sources, and while waiting for new pulls at the Reagan Library I've been collecting all kinds of data about what people who are not like me really think.  Let me just say:  you can only do this if you are not someone who is tempted to run up to other folks, smack them with your Ph.D., and set them straight. Nor is it a very good idea to reveal yourself as a historian in an uncontrolled setting.  I used to tell strangers what I do for a living, but one too many moments in a bed and breakfast where someone perked up and said " Really?  I love history!" and then bubbled on about World War II or their Daughters of the Confederacy chapter cured me of that.  Now I stuff a piece of toast in my mouth and, following Betty White, respond "BLAAAHRfingaahr!"

"Excuse me?" they ask.

"IRS," I say, swallowing the toast.  "I work for the IRS."

But one day I want to write an ethnography of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (RRPL), because I have never met so many people in one place who are so drawn to a particular history as those who are involved with Ronald Reagan.  The young man who checked me in on Tuesday night, who I will call Walt, is a perfect example.  He has a BA in history from a Cal State school in the region, and named about six history professors as wonderful and caring teachers.  Walt, like many people who live here, volunteers on Saturdays at the RRPL after working a five day week at the hotel.  He told me that his life's dream would be to get a job from the National Archives and go to work there full time.  "That place," he said reverently, "is the jewel in our crown here in Simi Valley."

The RRPL counts on volunteers for a significant percentage of its staffing needs as far as I can tell, although Walt is the youngest one I have met.  The docents that give tours to school children and the elderly are all volunteers, mostly retired women, and every once in a while I rush through my lunch  to join one on her rounds.  Yesterday, on a stop at the chunk of the Berlin Wall pictured above, one docent gave the Tea Party version of how the wall was removed in a popular uprising of Germans inspired by Ronald Reagan.  I scribbled it down in my notebook.  It went like this.

"When President Reagan ended communism," she explained to a group of children, "The bureaucrats talked and talked about how to take the Berlin Wall down and give the people back their freedoms.  But they couldn't figure it out.  So you know what?  One day the people just went and got their little hammers and they took it down themselves!"

Queerness at the RRPL?
I say in all seriousness:  if you are too focused on your own authority as a historian you will learn nothing from the people who love history and are out there practicing it beyond our scrutiny.  For example, I learn a great deal when I ask total strangers why they are visiting the RRPL and how often they come.  Informal research suggests that a great many elderly California Republicans who are hoovering up social security (while voting down the taxes that might allow anyone else to retire)  are frequent repeat visitors to the RRPL.  I suspect one reason is the desserts at the cafe, which are outstanding.  Ronald Reagan loved dessert and so do I; therefore, I often assume that other people come to the RRPL for the dessert too.

While eating dessert, or just hanging out in the sun, people tell me other things which indicate that the worship of Ronald Reagan is approaching a civil religion in this part of the world.  "I just come to be close to him," one woman said to me as we stood in front of the presidential grave.  Another commented, as we looked out over the replica of the South Lawn donated by Merv Griffin, TV talk show host and closet queen, "I find this to be a very spiritual place." Many non-Californians may visit for spiritual reasons too, as the numerous mobile homes with plates from other states in the parking lot suggest. Or the dessert.

The beauty of the building and grounds, which look out over vineyards, mountains, and neatly kept subdivisions, projects the grace and reassuring, modest, upper-class folksiness that Reagan himself embodied.  Reagan, we need to remind ourselves, cultivated his image as a cultural bulwark between order and disorder for a great many working and middle class white people who were dismayed and frightened by the determination of gays, feminists, and people of color to have full citizenship.   Because of this, the RRPL successfully evokes nostalgia for those  Cold War prosperity, with its white privilege and compulsory heterosexuality, that the president and his conservative allies, paradoxically, began to dismantle for good in the 1980s.

I strolled around the grounds before leaving for the day, and ended up back at the grave site where four women were discussing whether the two spotlights on either side were actually cleverly disguised security cameras.  I asked a couple of my questions, and one said, "Hey -- why are you here?"  and I admitted that I was a historian working on a book.  They wanted to know what it was about, so I told them:  campaigns against pornography during the Reagan administration.  They looked shocked, which people often are when you mention the p-word.  "Well I certainly hope you are writing about nabblah," one said.

"Excuse me?" I said, only belatedly realizing what she meant.  "Do you mean NAMBLA?  The North American Man Boy Love Association?"  Oh good Christ on a cracker, what had I done?  Why didn't I say I was writing about the IRS?  "Uh, no.  I'm writing a book about the Justice Department and attempts by the federal government to control pornography."

"Government certainly didn't do a very good job, did it?" said another member of the party tartly.

"Well," the first woman continued, "You should write about NAMBLA, because they are still responsible for most of the pornography in the United States.  I have a friend who works for the FBI, and he goes undercover to investigate them and the way they bring children into homosexuality with pornography."

"Oh," I said brightly, wondering what computer dating service she was using.  "That's interesting.  I'll have to think about that. Um," I decided to take the plunge and be a historian.  "You do know that most pornography is heterosexual?" I asked. "And that the majority of pornography is made and distributed by major media conglomerates, a number of which are in the Fortune 500?"  They all looked at me blankly.  No, they hadn't known that.

We said polite goodbyes and I toodled off.

24 comments:

GayProf said...

I have visited the George Bush, Sr. Presidential Library and was equally intrigued by the real visitors (I went under duty, so felt more of an interloper than an actual sincere visitor). Given Bush, Sr. never had the popularity of Reagan, his admirers had a special mission to educate the world about his accomplishments. Upon entering, I was greeted by a nice elderly white lady who asked if I had ever visited previously. When I said I had not, she informed me that "I was going to be so proud to be an American." Those at the Reagan library might be surprised to find out that visitors at Bush, Sr. credit him with the final collapse of the Berlin wall. Of course, I am sure the people of Berlin are surprised by either claim.

Anonymous said...

I heard a radio show, maybe "This American Life" where someone gave a full description of the class trip to the Reagan library. Worth a listen...although I think you know what to expect. I have to add that some of the Reagan worship you describe and the graveside scene, reminds me a lot of my visit to Graceland. Perhaps the way to upend the belief that Reagan ended communism is to suggest on commercial right wing talk radio that it was actually Elvis who did the job!!!!!!!!!!

Janice said...

I like your idea about claiming to be from the IRS. I sometimes get people who tell me "Oh, I hated history!" when I tell them what I do. That's even more disconcerting than the fans.

After twenty five years in Canada, I'm bemused how large American presidents loom in the popular imagination. Even Trudeaumania was a pale shadow of responses evoked by presidents, positive or negative. The presidency is more galvanizing and polarizing than the prime ministership or the monarchy has ever been in Canadian culture.

I very much agree that Reagan has inspired an American civil religion, fed by myth and ideological aspirations. He's hardly the first but certainly a powerful cultural force today.

Anonymous said...

I doubt that the Reagan religion will ever be as potent as the Lincoln religion, the Camelot myth, or the posthumous worship of MLK. I remember a liberal hymn about "Abraham, Martin and John".

JackDanielsBlack

Leslie M-B said...

I would love to read an ethnography of the RRPL! I must admit I was tempted to ditch my own dissertation research at the Smithsonian in favor of a similar ethnography when I was living in the Young Women's Christian Home on Capitol Hill. The conversations were fascinating, but yes, as you point out, one must be able to hold her tongue.

Anonymous said...

The radio program on the class visit to the Reagan Library was the "Kid Politics" episode of "This American Life." Definitely worth a listen.

Kathie said...

You might also be interested in Eric Alterman's essay, Ronald Reagan Superstar in a recent Nation:
http://www.thenation.com/article/158678/ronald-reagan-superstar

Historiann said...

Love this. I'm in Austin this week, and haven't managed to toddle over to the LBJ Library, something I had originally planned to do.

I wonder what will happen to Reagan after he has passed from living memory in another 50 years or so. That's the real test. (I'm not making any predictions--he could pass the test, because there are a lot more folks like the ones you're hanging out with in Simi Valley, TR, than there are academic historians!)

Perpetua said...

OT: @Janice: I would say 95% of the time when I say I'm a historian, the response I get is: "I HATED history." Um, okay, then. It's so weird. Does that happen to any other profession? I'm trying it out in my head (I hate English/books/reading, I hate electrical engineering, I hate biology. I can't see it. Maybe therapists hear a lot of "Therapy is garbage.") Next time, I'll say IRS - but really, doesn't that make people angrier than being a historian? What do Americans hate most - the IRS, historians, or Planned Parenthood workers? I think I'll say "neurologist."

Kimberly said...

I have to third the "This American Life" recommendation (it's act 1 of show #424, from 01/16/2011). It's a fascinating - and horrifying - story of the contemporary politics of history. One poor child is told that his decisions about the re-enactment of the invasion of Grenada are "wrong" because they do not correspond with Reagan's decisions. It's as if you can hear the kid's propensity for critical thought die..

Courtney said...

I know that I should expect this; I mean, people don't go to Reagan's grave to defile his memory. Usually visitors must have felt a strong connection to the man.

But... but... oh my. I'd like to know how you managed to keep your composure!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I went to the Nixon library in Yorba Linda for the first time last weekend. It was a surreal experience, not least because the Watergate room was "closed for renovation" (hmmm...). The docents were clearly true believers. An ethnography of these places would reveal an amazing trove of communal mythmaking, I am sure.

I also get the "I hated history" response a lot (probably about as often as the "I love the History Channel" show). Historians are not unique in this though. Mathematicians get it all the time too. As a medieval historian, I try to avoid questions from strangers about what I do. At best, I have to have a conversation about the Crusades -- okay, at least that is medieval -- or Henry VIII -- not so medieval. At worst, I look like an overgrown D&D geek. I usually start with "I am a teacher," moving to "well, a professor actually." Eventually I make it to "I study premodern legal history," which is obscure enough to end the questioning, and somehow sounds more respectable to me than "medieval church history" which runs the risk of bringing out the Catholic fringe.

Fr. John said...

As the former director of the private Nixon library, which became part of NARA in 2007, I enjoyed your post. Thank you.

Your correspondent above may be interested in why the Watergate gallery is closed for renovation (but soon to reopen with a new exhibit organized by library director and historian Tim Naftali):

http://episconixonian.blogspot.com/2011/02/nixon-library-momentarily-redeemed.html

MK said...

Sing it, Father John! I’m a current federal historian who worked for 14 years at the National Archives and Records Administration’s Nixon Presidential Material Project. While it is disappointing to see that people don’t know the story of how the courageous and honorable Cold War historian, Tim Naftali, is putting up a new Watergate exhibit, the important thing is that it finally is happening. We’ll see how much of what he intended to put up ends up in the final exhibit. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. The New York Times touched on some aspects of Naftali’s brave efforts in an article last August.

There have been some tremendous battles over Nixon’s records, over the appointment (and firing of) U.S. Archivists, and over the direction in which the system of Presidential Libraries, with its public-private partnerships, should go. Some of the credit for what Tim Naftali is doing now should go to John H. Taylor, once a chief of staff to Richard Nixon in retirement and director of the private library, now an Episcopal priest and Vicar of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church and School. I applaud his candor in the blog post to which he linked above. He not only had the wisdom to see that a federal exhibit had to go up after the government established a Nixon Presidential Library in 2007, but he has defended Dr. Naftali stalwartly at his blog and mine against assaults from opponents of the government’s efforts.

I, too, have done my part to support Dr. Naftali, although it is difficult for a federal employee to blog. Having posted a few articles on HNN’s main page over the years, I finally took the plunge this past December. Dr. Potter, I touch on your post about the Reagan Presidential Library in a post I put up today. This follows on a post on Sunday, “Honoring Ronald Reagan,” in which I urged NARA officials to be more candid at a hearing on presidential libraries scheduled for this past Monday, February 28.

I have specific reasons which I can’t share for taking the particular tactical approach I did in the latter. My Sunday Reagan post includes a link to my submission of comments to NARA when it solicited public comments on alternatives to the presidential libraries. If you examine it at the link in my Reagan post, you’ll see some of what NARA is up against and why you see what you do at some of the presidential libraries.

I’ll be putting up a follow up post this weekend in which I examine some of the other issues you raised in your Reagan library post. You are welcome to submit comments or to email me (contact information on my About page). I lightly moderate my blog to ensure comments are on topic for a blog that centers on archives and records. As a federal employee, I avoid the purely political in my own posts and will take down overly political, off topic, flaming or trollish comments. I doubt I’ll get any there, my posts on archival topics and on studying the presidency are pretty carefully focused and the subjects are quite arcane. Most readers (I get a lot of lurkers from inside and outside the government) seem to understand that political flaming only would harm the National Archives in its mission and play into, rather than help dissipate, some damaging stereotypes.

NARA often is in a much more precarious situation in these matters than outsiders realize. Priority number one for me at my blog is to protect it from harm, deliberate or inadvertent. Much as we in government don't know all that goes on within the history departments in various colleges and universities and might, in our private capacities, stumble and perhaps even harm you if we said the wrong thing.

I'm am flying somewhat under the radar with my blog so far but decided to provide links here after seeing a friend tweet about your post.

Anonymous said...

No previous desire to visit the RR shrine. None. And I'm an archivist. Re: desserts though...

"Informal research suggests that a great many elderly California Republicans who are hoovering up social security (while voting down the taxes that might allow anyone else to retire) are frequent repeat visitors to the RRPL. I suspect one reason is the desserts at the cafe, which are outstanding."

Ditto on Eric Alterman's essay, Ronald Reagan Superstar.

"...the stories in the Bible on Jesus are not the result of any contemporaneous reporting but rather, quite literally, the stuff of myth."

"The same cannot be said of Ronald Reagan. We have, for instance, contemporaneous reports that Reagan apparently was a pathological liar. He bragged of liberating concentration camps in Germany although he spent all of World War II in Hollywood.

He invented “a verbal message” from the pope in support of his Central America policies and lied about that too. He insisted, in 1985, that the leader of South Africa’s vicious apartheid regime, P.W. Botha, had “eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country.” Pants on fire…"

MK said...

Could you please let me know, Dr. Potter, is the longish comment I submitted within the last hour in trash, still in the mod queue or did it not go through? It appeared briefly after I hit publish, then disappeared. Should I resubmit it? I linked to my post about yours and a prior one ("Honoring Reagan") at my blog.

Thanks!

MK
Federal historian and former NARA Nixon tapes archivist

Tenured Radical said...

MK: Just got to my new hotel & dug your original comment out of my spam file, where things sometimes go for no reason (then, of course, things go through that say "I enjoy very much these posts it is good to become history professor," by Generic V!agara.

So happy to be drawing archivists -- you folks are my heroes. I'll check out your blog.

MK said...

Many thanks, much appreciated. I frequently comment at my blogging friend Father John's blog which uses the Blogger platform also and know things can weird out at times.

I'm not an archivist, although I was one earlier in what so far has been a 38-year federal career. I worked at NARA with the Nixon tapes from 1976 to 1990 but have been working elsewhere in the government as an historian for the past 21 years.

I loved Maureen Dowd's comment in the last years of the Bush administration about Bill Leonard, the former NARA/ISOO director who tried to audit Dick Cheney's handling of national security classified records: "archivists are the new macho heroes of Wshington." My late sister, a supervisory archivist in NARA's records declassification unit, was a mentor and boss to Leonard's successor as NARA ISOO director.

Thanks again for taking the time to dig out my comment from spam and to approve it for posting.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I’ll be putting up a follow up post this weekend in which I examine some of the other issues you raised in your Reagan library post. You are welcome to submit comments or to email me (contact information on my About page). I lightly moderate my blog to ensure comments are on topic for a blog that centers on archives and records. As a federal employee, I avoid the purely political in my own posts and will take down overly political, off topic, flaming or trollish comments. I doubt I’ll get any there, my posts on archival topics and on studying the presidency are pretty carefully focused and the subjects are quite arcane. Most readers (I get a lot of lurkers from inside and outside the government) seem to understand that political flaming only would harm the National Archives in its mission and play into, rather than help dissipate, some damaging stereotypes.

NARA often is in a much more precarious situation in these matters than outsiders realize. Priority number one for me at my blog is to protect it from harm, deliberate or inadvertent. Much as we in government don't know all that goes on within the history departments in various colleges and universities and might, in our private capacities, stumble and perhaps even harm you if we said the wrong thing.

I'm am flying somewhat under the radar with my blog so far but decided to provide links here after seeing a friend tweet about your post.


All this obsessive "protecting my blogge from harm" shitte is weirding me outte, bigge tyme.

MIK said...

Not to worry, poster who is weirded out. Just a reflection of diversity in humankind and different work environments. But then Nixonara is a Star Trek fan, IDIC and alll that!

Bottom line, that I am very different than some of you hasn't kept me from fighting some fierce battles on your behalf in government. And that's what is most important here.

Rebel Girl said...

I am loving this post and the commentary - especially as someone who was a young rebel during the Reagan years and as an OC resident for the last 18years who has watched the ongoing evolution of the Nixon Library...

(*not a historian though - an English major!)

AYY said...

JDB,
"Abraham, Martin and John?". Uh oh. I thought it was "Abraham, Martin, and Ron."

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