Off-Topic Tuesday: Context Matters

It’s time for the second part of an off-topic travel piece about my visit to the Reagan Library and Museum in California a few years ago. It’s on the flip.

Context matters. It’s what makes a story into history. Without an understanding of where and why a set of events happened and how they were affected by their times and places, they’re just pieces of a narrative—something we tell to pass the time. Unlike history, such a story can’t teach us any profound lessons about ourselves. At best, it can give us only didactic little moralisms about how we should act or what we should think.

Days later, on the plane back to Wisconsin, a visitor to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, who had been puzzled by the museum’s lack of context for the Reagan story, is reading a book about Abraham Lincoln, and he has a flash of insight. Scholars of the Lincoln image talk about “the folklore Lincoln.” This is the Lincoln who was swiftly elevated to the status of legend in the generation immediately following his assassination. The folklore Lincoln was a humble man of the people, whose extraordinary ascent to the presidency was exceeded in its extraordinariness only by his extra-extraordinary performance while in office. This Lincoln embodied everything that was good about America. He was most useful for teaching Americans didactic little moralisms about how they should act or what they should think if they wanted to be real Americans. This Lincoln was created and nurtured after his death by his friends and associates in life. But their recollections of the Lincoln they had known could not help but reflect the towering icon he had become. The folklore Lincoln embodied some of the reality of the man, but by no means all of him, and certainly not the most interesting part of him, or the most important to history. It took years before a rounded portrait of the man began to emerge from behind the idol.

At his presidential library and museum, the Reagan on display is “the folklore Reagan.” Just as the early chroniclers of Lincoln were eager to portray him as they felt a national hero should be portrayed, and just as they were eager to use his life as a measuring stick for all that was good in the American character, the jacketed docents of the Reagan Library (and the people employed behind the scenes) are just as eager to portray Reagan in the same way. Like the early chroniclers of Lincoln, they all have memories of the living man, some of them knew him personally, and all have a stake in burnishing his memory. And so, just as it wasn’t until the passing of what one historian calls “the generation of reminiscence” that dispassionate analysis of Lincoln’s character and presidency could begin, so will it be necessary for the generation that remembers Reagan to die before similar analysis can begin. It can’t be done as effectively or as well as long as Reagan remains in living memory.

You can argue that a presidential museum isn’t the place one is likely to find dispassionate analysis. Any museum devoted to one man, funded by his friends and political supporters, is likely to bathe him in an especially golden light. But people I know in the museum business tell me that museum ethics require them to be accurate in placing subjects in their proper time and place and to neither gloss over the negative nor overemphasize it. I don’t believe the Reagan Library succeeds in this. What that beautiful complex on that beautiful hillside is, above all, is a church. It’s a place for believers who don’t need things explained to them, a place for them to worship the hero of the Reagan story. The Reagan history will have to wait.

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