The Reagan Rhetoric: History and Memory in 1980s America

By Kuehl, Rebecca A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Reagan Rhetoric: History and Memory in 1980s America


Kuehl, Rebecca A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The Reagan Rhetoric: History and Memory in 1980s America. By Toby Glenn Bates. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011. 240 pp.

Presidential scholars and everyday U.S. citizens apparently cannot escape the ghost of Ronald Reagan. In The Reagan Rhetoric: History and Memory in 1980s America, Toby Glenn Bates justifies his study because "not a single scholar who focused exclusively on Reagan's rhetoric approached the subject as a historian" (p. 5). The author contends that Reagan's consistency in his rhetoric about issues, such as states' rights, Vietnam, and the Iran-Contra affair, contributed to his ability to reframe public memory surrounding those events.

The book analyzes Reagan's rhetoric through three case studies: a speech where he mentions states' rights at the 1980 Neshoba County (MS) Fair, his rhetoric about Vietnam, and his response to the Iran-Contra affair. Chapter 1 explores how local and national memory proceeded along divergent paths in response to Reagan's use of states' rights in the Mississippi speech. Reagan's words "created a national political firestorm" because the Neshoba County Fair is only a few miles from the location of the 1964 murders of three Freedom Summer volunteers (p. 22). Bates suggests that national memory viewed states' rights primarily through race, whereas local memory saw the issue as one that related to issues beyond race, including state versus federal power. Because the 1980 economic crisis was a more pressing national issue, media coverage about Reagan's controversial use of states' rights eventually subsided. Reagan was careful to maintain that message over time, reaching out to voters by giving some speeches to African American groups shortly after the Neshoba County Fair. Bates writes that "August 1980 ended with both local and national audiences satisfied," but his claim could use elaboration because the book operates with unclear definitions of local and national memory (p. 32). More specifically, this case study would benefit from an expansion of the interaction between these two concepts and how they shaped one another.

The second case study of Reagan's rhetoric is about his role in framing public memory around Vietnam veterans. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 all focus on Vietnam from different cultural materials--through Reagan's speeches (Ch. 2); movies about Vietnam during the Reagan era, such as Rambo and Platoon (Ch. 3); and 1980s television shows and comics about the Vietnam War (Ch. 4). The analysis of both Reagan's rhetoric about Vietnam and the cultural uptake of that rhetoric is one of the strengths of the book because it provides a thorough analysis of how Reagan's reframed articulation of public memory about the Vietnam veteran gained presence in U.S. culture. Vietnam veterans needed a new narrative to explain their role in an unpopular war, and Reagan provided that narrative. Reagan consistently argued that "the American government had betrayed the soldier in Vietnam," displacing the blame from soldiers to the U.

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