Reagans reconsidered

April 10, 1991

It would take a hard-hearted person indeed not to feel some sympathy for the Reagans today as they confront the equivalent of a supermarket tabloid scandal carried to the 20th power.

Reagan has issued a more or less all-points denial of what is contained in the sensational "unauthorized biography" of Nancy Reagan by the indefatigable celebrity giant-killer Kitty Kelley. The problem is that a fair amount of what Kelley reports is now a matter of public record, and it is not a flattering picture of the couple who purported to be the standard-bearer of "traditional family values" in America. We know, for instance, that Nancy was pregnant at the time Reagan took her as his second wife in 1952. In that innocent time, that fact alone would have rendered Reagan totally unacceptable as a Republican presidential candidate.

But, you may say, times change, we are more tolerant now of what people do in their private lives. True. But that's a difficult argument for the Reagans to make precisely because they implicitly presented themselves as the moral arbiters of the land, the tireless partisans of the image of America the Innocent.

It is hardly debatable that Reagan, using the matchless skill of a trained actor, created a public persona for himself and his wife that simply was inconsistent with the private persona. He was capable of altering reality to an astonishing degree -- the most recent example being his solemn declaration, with an air of injured innocence, that he hadn't really changed his position on gun control, that he was just misunderstood for all those years when he was a dutiful foot soldier of the National Rifle Association.

In effect, Reagan created a fantasy world in which he was a kind of national Wizard of Oz. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Kitty Kelley created her fantasy world. Wasn't that just the other side of the coin, so to speak? Or, put another way, if you live by pretension, you must be prepared to die by pretension.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.