Reagan's Mythical America: Storytelling as Political Leadership

By Oldenburg, Christopher J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Reagan's Mythical America: Storytelling as Political Leadership


Oldenburg, Christopher J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Reagan's Mythical America: Storytelling as Political Leadership. By Jan Hanska. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 256 pp.

Ronald Reagan once remarked, "I think now and then to use an anecdote saves a lot of words" and even "illustrates what it is we're trying to do" ("Interview With Paul Duke of WETA-TV on the President's Relations With Congress," July 16, 1982, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1982, Book II [Washington, DC: GPO, 1983], 951). Reagan, the master storyteller, dramatized, personified, evangelized, and mythologized America with Scheherazadian skill. But was he acting or arguing for policy based on authentic American values? Did his anecdotes constitute truths or falsehoods? What precisely were his storytelling politics trying to accomplish? Jan Hanska's exhaustively researched and erudite book shines profound light on these mysteries. Reagan braided threads of smaller stories into a compelling metanarrative web. Hanska explicates how Reagan constructed stories using re-created, "Americanonized" (p. 146) myths such as the "American way of life" and "the American dream" (p. 123). These myths blurred the factual and fictional, conflated the sacred and the profane, constituted the American dream as an object of belief, and blended the mythical and religious into the political.

One tends to think of anecdotes as simple notices of human events. However, Hanska's work demonstrates that political narratives are an exceedingly complex form of action. They interweave culturally dominant ideologies, religious beliefs, and myths into powerfully persuasive frameworks for political leaders to deploy. The book's raison d'etre is to fill a lacuna in the genre of such political narratives. As such, Reagan's Mythical America is a remarkable achievement and will be instructive for students of history, narratology, politics, presidential studies, and rhetoric.

The book has numerous strengths, not the least of which is its refreshing orientation. The claim that politics are illusory is not novel; however, the modality employed by Hanska to study narrativized politics is. Methodologically, the choice to revive narratology is audacious, given that many scholars have left it, as Reagan might put it, "on the ash-heap of history" ("Address to Members of the British Parliament," June 8, 1982, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1982, Book I [Washington, DC: GPO, 1983], 747). But Hanska provides a compelling rationale that various conceptions of narrative theories are indeed appropriate lenses for examination. Those conceptions emerge from an impressive (and, at times, taxing) scope of critics, including Aristotle, Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, Robert N. Bellah, Jonathan Culler, Jacques Derrida, Emile Durkheim, Northrop Frye, Gerard Genette, Fredric Jameson, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Vladimir Propp, and Alexis de Tocqueville--who all appear and reappear as if characters in A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

Hanska's first chapter explains how Reagan's narratives supplant policy making. …

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