Reagan at 100: The Obi Wan of the GOP

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Former First Lady Nancy Reagan (2nd R) is flanked by Ronald Reagan Foundation Chairman Frederick J. Ryan (L) and former US secretary of state James Baker (R) and as they listen to singer Lee Greenwood at the centennial birthday celebration for former US president Ronald Reagan at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on February 6, 2011. Reagan, who died in 2004 at the age of 93, would have been 100 years old today. AFP PHOTO/Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan (2nd R) is flanked by Ronald Reagan Foundation Chairman Frederick J. Ryan (L) and former US secretary of state James Baker (R) and as they listen to singer Lee Greenwood at the centennial birthday celebration for former US president Ronald Reagan at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on February 6, 2011. Reagan, who died in 2004 at the age of 93, would have been 100 years old today. AFP PHOTO/Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Written by Dominic DezzuttiIn the movie, Star Wars, right before Obi Wan Kenobi is struck down from his mortal life by Darth Vader, he warns Darth that, “In death, I will be more powerful than you can ever imagine.”

While no records show Ronald Reagan ever uttering those same words, they certainly ring just as true.

While I am not old enough to have been a political pundit while Reagan was President, I was old enough to pay attention to the news and I have a good memory that the man revered as a legend in the Republican Party was not seen that way while he was alive.

It must be said that, while alive, Reagan was certainly an accomplished leader that oversaw the United States’ victory in the Cold War. He also was one of those unique leaders that could bring together various elements of his own party and unify them.

However, he was also criticized roundly throughout his second term for either being asleep at the switch, or being behind the Iran-Contra Affair.

But after his death, Reagan attained mythic hero status by Republicans. His death washed away all of his past sins and seemed to create a powerful force for Republicans that the party hasn’t seen for generations.

That change in a political leader’s status is not uncommon, but for Reagan, it has found an entirely new level.

However, the intriguing element of Reagan’s mythic status reaching a new level is how he has become an anachronism. For today’s GOP leaders, he is a litmus test and an impossible standard, all at the same time.

When 10 different Republicans were running for President in 2008, all of them said that Reagan was one of their heroes. It seemed both in 2008 and in 2010, no one could run as a Republican if you didn’t feel that Ronald Reagan embodied everything that was good in the Republican Party. That’s how he became a litmus test. Believe in the Reagan model, or get out of the party.

The impossible standard part comes along when conservatives conveniently forget how Reagan masterfully twisted the arms of the wings of his own party into compromise, a compromise that those wings would fight to their dying breath in this day and age. Reagan was only able to become the success he was by getting compromise that even he would have a hard time getting today.

Basically, conservatives are urging their leaders to be more like Reagan, without letting any of those leaders strike the compromise that Reagan did so successfully.

And as what would have been his 100th birthday was commemorated this weekend, it certainly doesn’t look like any of the impossible standards are going away anytime soon.

While mythic legends can unify political parties, they are also extremely dangerous to its future leaders, because as long as those mythic heroes are held as standard bearers, no new legends can be born.

Reagan wasn’t trying to be the next Lincoln. He was simply determined to be the first Reagan.

That seems to be the most important lesson that Reagan can teach today’s political parties. Unify around what these mythic legends stood for, but allow new leaders to be their own person.

About The Blogger

- Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Decides debate series, a co-production of CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, looks at the local and national political scene in his CBSDenver.com blog. Read new entries here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dezzutti writes about federal, state and local matters and how our elected leaders are handling the issues important to Colorado. Dezzutti also produces the Emmy winning Colorado Inside Out, hosted by Raj Chohan, on Colorado Public Television.

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