Monday, November 3, 2008

Dixon, Illinois: Reagan's Small Town

(Last week, I wrote a piece for the New Statesman's election blog. I submitted this as well, but it doesn't seem to have made the cut. The shame! Amiable Dunce, though, is still a reliable host for my writing.)

At the dedication of his Presidential Library, Ronald Reagan took the opportunity to muse on his past and its contemporary relevance:

I grew up in a town where everyone cared about one another because everyone knew one another, not as statistics in a government program but as neighbours in need…Our neighbours were never ashamed to kneel in prayer to their makers nor were they ever embarrassed to feel a lump in their throat when old glory passed by. No one in Dixon, Illinois ever burned a flag and no one in Dixon would have tolerated it.


This was in 1991, in the midst of the culture wars that swamped American politics as the Cold War drifted into history. Patriotism and American values as defined by rural and small-town life defined conservative rhetoric in the renewed battle against liberalism, and Reagan here was asserting his continuing loyalty to the cause (incidentally, out of the five Presidents at that ceremony, only one place his hand on his heart during the national anthem – Jimmy Carter). Today, seventeen years later, such reminiscence would delight the GOP crowds who continue to turn out for a campaign which increasingly defines itself around the symbol of the small town. Here tradition and morality and independent conservatism thrive in apparent cohesion with the vision of the iconic President Reagan.

Reagan, though, had more to say about Dixon and the place of small towns in the American fabric. Peggy Noonan, in her memoir of the Reagan White House, recalled a meandering Oval Office conversation on economics and the changing shape of the family in the 20th Century. Reagan reflected:

It was the rise of the city, too…You know, those sleepy old towns where generation after generation lived. And then those kids in the Midwest left; there was nothing in those towns – Lord, that’s why I left! And they wanted to see the world, so they went to the cities…

Reagan escaped from Dixon, Illinois. He aimed for Chicago, ended up in Des Moines and before too long found his way to Los Angeles. Hollywood celebrated the small town, and in those days wore a rigid fa├žade of wholesomeness, but it was there that Reagan was trained in the big city values of celebrity, vigorous creativity, vibrant commercialism, and active, progressive politics. While he was to give up on the latter, or turn it into something else, it was still the city that made the Reagan who became President, and which made him a heap of money. The shining city secured him the American dream, which he proceeded to promote for the rest of his life. It is not just that McCain/Palin marginalise large swathes of the American people with their narrow focus, it’s that they ignore this vital aspect of American mythology, the cities which forged the nation’s ideas, images and dreams, leaving their vision strangely stagnant.

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