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

March 3, 2011, 6:00 pm

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, whi
ch 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.

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