A Breath of Fresh Air: “The Reagan Rhetoric: History and Memory in 1980s America” by Dr Toby Bates

So much of the written word today is only used to titillate or sensationalize, to hide opinion within thinly veiled pseudo-objective commentary and to debase the beauty of language once used within a covenant to inform and illuminate the process of discovery and growth. Too much of the public record in a sharply divided nation has been used to wound, destroy and tear down the subjects of print and online articles, editorials and books. Even sadder than the bitter harvest of dry columnists and stealth agents for political masters masquerading as journalists, are many of the works of so-called learned residents of the halls of academia who issue lazy and pretentious books that promise much and deliver little.In the case of Ronald Reagan so much has been written under the promise of objectivity and a careful and strict historical examination of the man who was the President of the United States, but such promise often evaporated after only a few chapters. Those who love history were ready for a certain kind of book on Reagan that perhaps could only be written after the calming balm of time had softened rancor, putting distance between the inquiry and the partisan noise of Reagan’s time.It has taken an historian, a professor at Mississippi State University, to finally get it right, to free us from the shallow sycophancy of those wedded to the political right and left in the country–determined as many have been to color or shade the historical record with their views–to either canonize Reagan or to demonize him in broad strokes of poison brushes. Dr. Toby Bates’ exhaustive research has paid off for him and for all serious readers seeking to find meaning for the present and the future in lessons from the past, to know where we have been that we might know where to go–the chief value for man in his recorded history.It may sound like an indulgence in hyperbole to say that Dr. Bates’ book was hard to put down, particularly since it could be an extraordinary text of political and cultural history for use in the classroom, or an intellectual indulgence for those pipe-smoking intellectual types of old, framed in black and white photos in their studies on rainy days, captured forever young in cardigan sweaters, thoughtful in black-rimmed glasses, a steaming cup of coffee on their cluttered desks–transfixed by the book they were reading. Dr. Bates has transcended the limitations of both applications. The depth of the book and the palette on which he paints produces a richness that does not compromise the faithful neutrality of his position as guide and historical recorder, a duty that Dr. Bates remains faithful to. He provides a trip in a time machine worthy of H.G. Wells to another era for those that only want to go there and see what it was like for themselves.Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan was a towering figure on the American scene. A champion of liberty and free markets, Reagan confronted the challenges of his hour–the Soviet Communist empire, a choking economy, a weakened executive branch, and a nation still reeling from Watergate, Vietnam, malaise, hostages in Iran and the frustration of an America viewed as suddenly impotent by its own people. Reagan walked across the treacherous terrain of his rendezvous with destiny with an infectious optimism and a gift for communication that he employed to bypass the corporate media and speak to the collective consciousness of the unique people called Americans.In this book, we can once again examine topics still relevant today–state’s rights vs. federalism, liberty vs. an ever expanding central government, Keynesianism vs. supply side economics, American exceptionalism vs. a new world order, civility in political discourse vs. shout down, invective-laden diatribes, and all the issues that require constant re-examination lest the biases of the historians and commentators of the moment highjack our most treasured possession–our shared history.The book’s lessons in the complexities of leadership, triumphs and failures, public figures who lead by example and not a heavy hand, and a timeless resilience, loom large for a nation again in crisis in 2011. Thanks to Dr. Bates, whose love for history and facts is written on every page, we can go to the 1980s and glean from his work’s scrupulous adherence to integrity, what Ronald Reagan meant to the nation, and why so many politicians of all stripes now try to stand in the shade of the long shadow he still casts across the fruited plains, hoping by osmosis to appear to become larger than life leaders at a moment when there appear to no longer be any answers.

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