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The Reagan Rhetoric: History and Memory in 1980s America.

The Reagan Rhetoric: History and Memory in 1980s America. By Toby Glenn Bates. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011. 240 pp.

Presidential scholars and everyday U.S. citizens apparently cannot escape the ghost of Ronald Reagan. In The Reagan Rhetoric: History and Memory in 1980s America, Toby Glenn Bates justifies his study because "not a single scholar who focused exclusively on Reagan's rhetoric approached the subject as a historian" (p. 5). The author contends that Reagan's consistency in his rhetoric about issues, such as states' rights, Vietnam, and the Iran-Contra affair, contributed to his ability to reframe public memory surrounding those events.

The book analyzes Reagan's rhetoric through three case studies: a speech where he mentions states' rights at the 1980 Neshoba County (MS) Fair, his rhetoric about Vietnam, and his response to the Iran-Contra affair. Chapter 1 explores how local and national memory proceeded along divergent paths in response to Reagan's use of states' rights in the Mississippi speech. Reagan's words "created a national political firestorm" because the Neshoba County Fair is only a few miles from the location of the 1964 murders of three Freedom Summer volunteers (p. 22). Bates suggests that national memory viewed states' rights primarily through race, whereas local memory saw the issue as one that related to issues beyond race, including state versus federal power. Because the 1980 economic crisis was a more pressing national issue, media coverage about Reagan's controversial use of states' rights eventually subsided. Reagan was careful to maintain that message over time, reaching out to voters by giving some speeches to African American groups shortly after the Neshoba County Fair. Bates writes that "August 1980 ended with both local and national audiences satisfied," but his claim could use elaboration because the book operates with unclear definitions of local and national memory (p. 32). More specifically, this case study would benefit from an expansion of the interaction between these two concepts and how they shaped one another.

The second case study of Reagan's rhetoric is about his role in framing public memory around Vietnam veterans. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 all focus on Vietnam from different cultural materials--through Reagan's speeches (Ch. 2); movies about Vietnam during the Reagan era, such as Rambo and Platoon (Ch. 3); and 1980s television shows and comics about the Vietnam War (Ch. 4). The analysis of both Reagan's rhetoric about Vietnam and the cultural uptake of that rhetoric is one of the strengths of the book because it provides a thorough analysis of how Reagan's reframed articulation of public memory about the Vietnam veteran gained presence in U.S. culture. Vietnam veterans needed a new narrative to explain their role in an unpopular war, and Reagan provided that narrative. Reagan consistently argued that "the American government had betrayed the soldier in Vietnam," displacing the blame from soldiers to the U.S. government (p. 54). One limitation of this case study, however, is that it occasionally seems to indicate that Reagan's rhetoric caused the new interpretation about Vietnam. Correlation does not equal causation, and a number of other factors in addition to Reagan's rhetoric may have influenced the evolution of public memory about Vietnam. One of the other factors that likely opened up Vietnam to a new interpretation of the war in 1980s movies, television, and comics is the passage of time. The book does not address the idea that time (or still other factors) might have shaped public memory.

The final case study is Reagan's rhetorical response to the Iran-Contra affair. Chapters 5 and 6 explore this event, outlining Reagan's initial reactionary response that he knew nothing, his three-month silence about the affair, and his return to consistency in once again advocating for funding the Contras in Nicaragua. This case study seems to contradict the overall thesis of the book that Reagan's consistency in rhetoric over time is what made him so successful. Bates writes, "He offered only inconsistency ... [and his] statements required a post-conference correction by his staff" (p. 117). Although the book points out that Reagan's inconsistency made him unpopular in polls, the study would benefit from additional elaboration about that rhetorical moment and could offer further clarification as to why Reagan might have first fumbled over his words, then became silent, and finally went back to the message that he was not personally culpable but that his administration was responsible instead.

Chapter 7 concludes with an analysis of how each of these events--Neshoba, Vietnam, and Iran-Contra--was portrayed in the media after Reagan's death in 2004. Bates suggests, "The national coverage of Reagan's death remained about the man, not his mistakes" (p. 166). When someone dies, people do not typically memorialize that individual for his or her mistakes but instead focus on the person's achievements over time. Because much of the analysis offered in this chapter relates to the rhetorical genre of eulogy, presidential scholars who study national eulogies in particular might desire more insight from Bates than he provides here.

While Bates offers a rich reading of some of the historical contexts shaping Reagan's rhetoric about important political events, his simplistic definition of rhetoric as "using language effectively as a means of communication or persuasion" (p. 5) limits the analysis to more of a historical understanding of Reagan rather than a deeply rhetorical one. Despite this limitation, Bates offers insightful analysis of how Reagan's rhetoric has shaped public memory surrounding issues, such as Vietnam, and that contribution is important to scholars working in the areas of rhetoric, public memory, and the presidency.

--Rebecca A. Kuehl

South Dakota State University
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Author:Kuehl, Rebecca A.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Brief article
Date:May 4, 2012
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