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What he left behind

Sun Staff

In 1982, NBC first broadcast Family Ties and the nation first met Alex P. Keaton.

The show was supposed to be about his parents -- ex-hippies Steve and Elyse who once protested the Vietnam War and volunteered in the Peace Corps. But it was their teenage son who quickly became the star of the show. Deftly played by Michael J. Fox, Alex was, of all things, a young conservative who hung a Richard Nixon poster on his bedroom wall and dreamed of making millions on Wall Street.

"When else could a boy with a briefcase become a national hero?" Family Ties co-creator Gary David Goldberg once asked.

Only in the 1980s. Only in Ronald Reagan's America.

That Ronald Reagan once called Family Ties his favorite TV show comes as no surprise. Airing in almost perfect parallel to his administration, from 1982 to 1989, the show captured the new era that Reagan ushered in. Hooked on Reagan's optimism and strength, the Alex Keaton generation was rejecting the counterculture of the 1960s and embracing the wealth and power that came to define the '80s.

Family Ties was just the beginning. Reagan's impact on the cultural landscape was vast. Books like Tom Clancy's techno-thrillers that celebrated the defense industry and conservative radio programs like Rush Limbaugh's found their time and place during the Reagan era. Even today, 24 years after he first won the presidency, Reagan's cultural legacy is felt.

In California, an actor is once again governor, with Arnold Schwarzenegger walking the path Reagan cleared years ago. In Washington, every president since the Great Communicator himself has tried to recapture his charm and mimic his mastery of political stagecraft. And throughout the country, the religious right that Reagan fostered has grown into a potent political and cultural force.

Reagan was largely a self-invented man and not always a success -- he failed twice in bids to win the Republican presidential nomination. But when he did succeed, it was not because of his family name or government programs. He succeeded on his own, a message not lost on his followers.

"I think the one area where he had the biggest impact is in the sense he really lived the American-dream narrative, where to make it in America you're a triumphant individual," said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor at American University who specializes in political communication and the modern presidency.

Reagan's oft-quoted vision of "morning in America" spread throughout the culture. He made the rise of the religious right possible by embracing religion and by mythologizing a Norman Rockwell version of America where the people who lived in small towns and rural areas were the real Americans, Steinhorn said.

The flip side, though, was a certain demonization of the underclass and the cities -- there was no room in Reagan's America for so-called welfare mothers and other unfortunates.

"Forget about whatever circumstances you had in life, or the bigotry that may have been visited upon your ancestors," Steinhorn said. "Reagan created this ethos of the triumphant individual, that you're successful because of your own doing. The flip side is that if you're not successful, it's because of you, as well."

Reagan's unapologetic conservatism also helped make it possible for broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh to find an audience. Limbaugh's show, which began in Sacramento, Calif., went national in 1984, as Reagan was on his way to carrying 49 states and racking up more votes than any presidential candidate before or since.

Reagan acknowledged his link to Limbaugh in a 1992 letter, in which he wrote the talk-show host, "Thanks for all you're doing to promote Republican and conservative principles. Now that I've retired from active politics, I don't mind that you've become the number one voice for conservatism."

The letter was featured prominently on Limbaugh's Web site yesterday.

Limbaugh wasn't the only entertainer who got a boost from Reagan. Some critics have noted how Bruce Springsteen gained his greatest popularity in the Reagan years. In 1984, as Reagan was proclaiming a "morning in America," Springsteen released his Born in the U.S.A. album.

Even though the title track is actually a denunciation of the Vietnam war, Springsteen put the ultimate symbol of American patriotism -- the flag -- on the album's cover, and Reagan tried to use it in his re-election campaign. Although Springsteen made it clear his song was not an endorsement of Reagan, the two shared a sincerity and appreciation for small-town America that suited the country's mood at the time.

On the international front, Reagan similarly presented a tough brand of American patriotism, presiding over the biggest defense buildup in the nation's history and pushing for a Strategic Defense Initiative -- dubbed "Star Wars" by Democratic detractors. After years on the back burner of the nation's consciousness, the arms race with the Soviet Union was now back up front.

And suddenly, Tom Clancy was in the right place at the right time: The Baltimore insurance salesman had finally sold his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, about a Russian nuclear submarine captain who defects to the United States, to a small Annapolis publishing house for a mere $5,000. The book, published in 1984, shot up the best seller lists after getting the ultimate blurb: Reagan called it "the perfect yarn" and "non-put-downable."

Reagan also reminded Americans of the glamour and elegance that marked previous presidencies. He took office after the Watergate scandal had tarnished Richard Nixon and one crisis after another -- gas shortages, Three Mile Island, the Iran hostages -- had bedeviled Jimmy Carter.

A one-time actor, Reagan elevated the role of the president both in real life and in fiction. Tom Clancy's books were turned into blockbuster movies, with the hero of those tales, Jack Ryan, eventually becoming president himself. The president as action hero became a movie staple: Definitive leading man Harrison Ford proved particularly adept at this, directly taking on terrorists in the 1997 hit, Air Force One. In the movie's signature line, Ford yells at the hijackers, "Get off my plane!"

It's a one-liner that could have easily passed Reagan's lips.

His memorable quips -- "There you go again," to Jimmy Carter; "Honey, I forgot to duck," to his wife after being shot; and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" in Berlin -- have seeped into the culture.

"Tear down this wall!" in particular has become a book title and a song title and is often used to urge the destruction of all sorts of walls, from the one that separates Israel from the West Bank to walls in Microsoft programming language.

Reagan's speeches may also linger in the nation's collective memory because so many people heard and watched them at the same time. His was the last presidency when people were largely watching just three television networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, rather than being distracted by multiple cable channels. Reagan's advisers exploited the media landscape of their time brilliantly.

"They took the scripting of situations to a new level, paying special attention to things like the backdrops of photo opportunities, figuring out the ideal time for photo ops, choreographing the situation more thoughtfully and completely than anyone had done before," said David Zarefsky, a professor of communication at Northwestern University who teaches presidential rhetoric.

Reagan transcended divisions such that people who vigorously opposed his policies still thought highly of him as a person, Zarefsky and Steinhorn said. That kind of universal appeal has not been duplicated since.

"He did communicate a sense of optimism at a time after we lost a war and when he had terrible economic shocks," Steinhorn said. "Ronald Reagan comes in and just wants to make people believe we can recapture control of our fate, and that's why he's so warmly remembered."

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