“Killing Reagan” battle is really for the soul of the GOP. Too bad both sides are grifters and hacks
George Will’s Thursday attack on Bill O’Reilly is not really about Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It is an opening salvo in a fight for control of the Republican Party. In a blistering op-ed—an op-ed, mind you, not a book review—Will savaged the newest book in O’Reilly’s killing series: Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault that Changed a Presidency. Will loathed O’Reilly’s contention that John Hinckley’s assassination attempt started Reagan’s descent into dementia only 70 days into his presidency. But that questioning of Reagan’s mental capacity is not what’s at the heart of Will’s attack on O’Reilly. What’s really going on is that establishment Republicans want to cut the extremists away from the party.
It may be too late.
Will’s criticism of Killing Reagan indicts O’Reilly for, well, making shit up. The book, Will notes, is “a tissue of unsubstantiated assertions.” Neither O’Reilly nor his ghostwriter actually did any research. They did not visit the Reagan Library; they did not interview any of the key players in the Reagan White House. Will calls the book “a no-facts zone,” and condemns it as “nonsensical history and execrable citizenship.” Will uses the inexcusable deficiencies of Killing Reagan to attack “today’s cultural pathology of self-validating vehemence with blustery certitudes substituting for evidence.” In other words, Will has had it with politicians who lie and then bully people into believing in their fantasy world.
The irony of Will’s outrage is that it was President Reagan who enabled such political storytelling to take over the Republican Party. After the second World War, when party leaders tried to resurrect the free-for-all economy of the 1920s that had collapsed into the Great Depression, President Dwight Eisenhower stepped in to articulate instead a new vision for the Republican Party. He led Republicans to back the New Deal consensus. Eisenhower agreed with Democrats that the government must regulate business, provide for social welfare, and develop the nation’s infrastructure, and he believed that bringing labor leaders, businessmen, and intellectuals to the same table—sometimes literally, as he invited men to dinner—to debate would enable political leaders to reach the best possible outcome for the nation. Eisenhower insisted on grappling with the complexities of reality and begged his opponents to do the same.
But businessmen who had thrived in the unregulated economy of the 1920s could not stomach the New Deal consensus. To combat it, they could not use reality-based arguments, for those arguments invariably led voters to government activism. Instead, in the 1950s, those opposed to the New Deal consensus began to create a cartoon version of reality. They laid out a storyline in which America was under siege by secular New Dealers. These “Liberals,” were ushering communism into America by insisting on an activist government that destroyed American individualism and religion.
They sold that storyline with bluster and bullying. Wisconsin’s Sen. Joseph McCarthy led the way. In his highly publicized attacks on supposed communists in Eisenhower’s administration, he presented himself as an outsider defending America from the communists who had infiltrated the government. He hectored witnesses, he bullied, he shouted, he made dramatic—and demonstrably false—statements. By the time fact checkers caught up with old lies, McCarthy was on to new ones. Movement Conservatives noted his techniques.