For another project, I’ve been reading a lot of books about Ronald Reagan. And you may remember that I wrote, Democrats Must Stop Believing the Reagan Myth. It was a reflection on Will Bunch’s Tear Down This Myth. I was arguing that the big problem was not so much that Republicans believed the myth but that Democrats did. In particular, our last two Democratic presidents have had nothing but good things to say about Reagan, even though he had a terrible effect on our country that we are still living with.
In the book, Bunch spends the end of it at the Reagan Presidential Library. And I noted, “It gave me an idea for a documentary. I could go to all of the presidential libraries and scoff at them. It would not be partisan at all, because I think they are all fakers.” I was quite serious about this. I just hate the whole idea of presidents making a big deal about themselves—especially when so many other people already do. One of my great annoyances with the Democratic Party is how they make a big deal out of Clinton, when he doesn’t deserve credit for the good economy and he deserves an enormous amount of blame for destroying “welfare as we know it,” by which he meant simply, “welfare.”
Anyway, even as I was thinking that, Thomas Frank was more or less doing it. He recently went on a little trip where he visited the presidential libraries of the 41st, 42nd, and 43rd presidents. That’s right: two Bushes and a Clinton. It came with a typically zingy Frank title, The Animatronic Presidency: How Presidential Museums Become Propaganda Palaces, Whitewashing Bush’s Disasters and Clinton’s Failings. The most disturbing aspect of the libraries is how effective they seem to be. Frank noted:
Sometimes this warm feeling would stick to me all the way back to my hotel room, where I would finally wash it away with a cold six-pack.
And this is coming from Thomas Frank: a man I consider more cynical than I am. But I suspect he’s just doing that for effect. He’s making a point about just how appealingly the presidential libraries present their subjects. But there is something natural about the reaction, “Hell, he’s a good ol’ boy!” That’s especially true coming from a white man. That’s not to say that Frank is especially racist (I believe we are all racist in various ways). It is just that we’ve been trained to be forgiving of rich, educated white men, just as we are critical of poor, uneducated brown people. I’m sure if I had been there, subconsciously, I would have wanted to be merciful even though intellectually I want to be extremely judgmental. These men, above all, deserve it.
I think the presidential libraries are above all else exercises in this kind of propaganda: rich white men can’t be all bad. But Thomas Frank has always been reluctant to call out the essential racial nature of American politics. In What’s the Matter With Kansas? he specifically rejects the idea that white people vote Republican because of racism. But in this way, his analysis is very shallow. Of course the nice white Christian Kansans aren’t explicit racists. But that doesn’t mean that implicit racist appeals aren’t having a big effect on them. And in fact, I have no doubt that they are.
The truth is, I think Frank knows it too. The title of his article refers to an animatronic Lyndon Baines Johnson at his much more low-key presidential library. See if you notice:
See? He’s a good ol’ boy. You wouldn’t take away his welfare. In fact, you’d package his welfare so it doesn’t look like welfare. But above all, you’d assume that this rich white guy had a good heart. You’d assume that he didn’t mean to do any harm. And actually, I think you’d mostly be right. I tend to error on the side of mercy. I think people are mostly good. The problem in our society is the implicit assumption that non-European descendants are suspect until proven otherwise. And that’s why we cut way back on welfare—not because more minorities use them (they don’t), but because we assume more minorities use them.
This, my friends, is why people will shell out $17 to visit the George W Bush Presidential Library for a day’s worth of chicanery and mendacity. But will be outraged at the idea of the top marginal tax rate going up a couple of percentage points or of spending a couple of bucks per day to care for child refuges. It’s all about the right kind of people and the wrong kind of people. If we all thought about it, we would rebel against the very idea. But in general, we don’t think about it. And that’s why our nation is in the bad state it is in.