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'Acting' a President
October 11, 2006
I was curious about the concept of a Presidential library, an American institution which every President since Roosevelt has had virtually as an entitlement, to store his papers, keep his memorabilia -- say the pen with which a major treaty was signed -- and to hang the photographs.
Would this always be interesting, I had wondered. For sure with Roosevelt or John F Kennedy, but with every President?
Apart from that casual curiosity, ever since my student days in South India under the shadow of MGR and NTR, I had always been intrigued with the persona of politician-actor or actor-politician. Who better than Reagan to embody the idea of politics as public acting?
Besides, I had always admired Reagan's sense of humour, the infectious grin, the sunny smile and the quick one liner. Asked about how an actor could be a President, he had quipped, 'How can one be a President without being an actor?'
One of my favourites is the story about when he had been shot in an assassination attempt in 1981 and was being wheeled into the operating theatre for the removal of the bullet. In that condition he had joked that his hope was that the doctors were Republican!
All this is not meant to imply that I am a great Reagan fan or any such thing, but as I said, I had a free morning in the bustling, sprawling city and wanted to be in open spaces for a while.
I drove to Simi Valley, an hour from Los Angeles, where Ronald Reagan lies buried and the Presidential library nestles in a beautiful valley surrounded by rolling hills with little habitation. It is a peaceful terrain with wide empty spaces. There were many cars, not so many people -- I am yet to figure out how there can be more cars than people in some of these public spaces -- and I took a leisurely stroll in the old style mansion and galleries.
I was told that Reagan himself, accompanied by his wife Nancy, a constant and bossy companion, had chosen this site after his retirement and had visited it many times later in his life, even when Alzheimer's started affecting his memory and movements.
What do you see in a Presidential library, if you are a lay visitor, not even an American, nor a historian or an expert? Plenty, I must say. To keep you engaged, educated and entertained is the objective of such places and they succeed admirably.
To begin with, there are galleries full of photographs, documents and re-creation of scenes showing how a young, robust and handsome American from a relatively humble background became first a radio announcer, then a Hollywood actor, rose to become the governor of the largest state -- California, and finally the President.
How? A part of his appeal was the physical persona, the voice, the stance, and the talent for reaching out to an audience in a simple way that was first used by the Actors Guild of Hollywood which made Reagan their spokesman.
Later Senator Barry Goldwater, a staunch conservative of those days used him for the campaigns. Success in reaching out to the crowd was the key. The final ascension to the Presidency was due to circumstances: a demoralised and downbeat America reeling under the Iranian hostage crisis of the Carter years, voted for a smiling, simple candidate who above all just radiated confidence and good cheer.
This narrative comes alive in the photos with Reagan just beaming at you in every setting -- looking strong and handsome whether in rugged jeans or formal suits, riding a horse or napping in a hammock.
'I have left orders to be woken up in a national emergency, even if I am in a cabinet meeting,' he had joked famously. (Former Indian prime minister H D) Deve Gowda would empathise, I guess!
But the museum is not all photographs. That would be boring. There is much to entertain the visitor. For instance, there is the full replica of the Oval Office to step into and who can resist that? There are gifts galore given to the President -- from signed photos 'by Maggy to Ron' (from Margaret Thatcher) to exquisite porcelain and crystal horses, a Reagan favourite.
There are small cinema halls every where, showing clips -- Reagan in an early romantic film, in the cowboy flicks, actually being shot and carried during the Presidency, meeting Rajiv Gandhi and at the Berlin Wall.
The last named is special. History records that the Reagan-Gorbachev chemistry did help in the ending of the Cold War and the eventual coming down of the Berlin Wall. The early Reagan who had spoken of the Evil Empire had gone to the Wall and in a speech had implored: 'Mr Gorbachev, please tear down this wall.'
Why the Cold War ended and how the Wall came down in Berlin warrants sophisticated multi-dimensional analysis, beyond the hagiographic presentation in a personal museum, but the fact remains that Reagan thought of this as his greatest achievement.
A section of the wall stands in the garden, a gift of the German government, and I was told that an elderly Reagan suffering from loss of memory after his Alzheimer's did from time to time look at the wall in the garden. A moving story akin to an imprisoned Shahjahan looking at the Taj Mahal, I thought.
The biggest attraction though is Air Force One, the Presidential aircraft in which Reagan traveled. This Boeing has been stripped, shipped, and put together in the Library in its own spectacular setting. So there is this whole plane sitting there which visitors enter from one side, look at all the fittings and trimmings of how a US President travels including the bed rooms, dining room, conference table etc before coming out from the other end.
And in a typically American twist, visitors can get their photos taken for ten dollars looking like a US President waving bye-bye to the hoi-polloi as he departs on an overseas journey. I did not see anyone not spend the ten dollars to get this photo taken, including I must sheepishly admit, myself.
The marvel of marketing to make you look like a majesty for a minute!
Enough of descriptions. Some reflections?
First, as I went around, I thought of how much the physical personality matters in elections, particularly in the system of direct elections to the office of the President as in America. The persona is often more potent than policies and people could not help liking Reagan even when they did not agree with him, and when you see the pictures, you know why.
Second, it was revealing to see how a library or a museum could be designed with imagination to make it attractive for everyone from kids to grandpas. To keep one engaged is the key and Reagan would have approved the approach.
As I went around, I remembered reading an old biography of Reagan as President. The biographer invoked the image that at its most serious and substantive moments Reagan thought of politics and the Presidency as a film set in which he had a part. He got ready for the 'take', performed his role with sincerity and was ready for the next scene, consequences be damned. 'The last scene was already in the can, he had given his best shot, and was ready for the next call -- 'light, camera, action'.
So today if a visitor gets his ticket's worth of sights and sounds, laughs and treats, the great actor should be smiling in the invisible wings, if there is one.
B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at email@example.com
B S Prakash