- The President Electric: Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Performance
Timothy Raphael’s The President Electric: Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Performance is an engaging book that explores the historical events and personages connected to the Reagan presidency. Yet the book “is not a biography of Ronald Reagan. It is not, in the strictest sense, about Ronald Reagan at all. It is an account of Reagan’s training in the techne of electronic media (radio, film, and television) and related apparatuses of persuasion (notably advertising and public relations)” (6–7). In referring to Reagan as the “President Electric,” Raphael cites evidence that is direct and immediate: biographical passages detailing Reagan’s childhood experiences with radio and theatre; an inside-the-scenes look at Reagan’s television career as host for General Electric Theater; and insights into media strategies employed during the presidency. Reagan’s experiences in mass media, Raphael argues, made his presidency unlike that of any president before him; indeed, he argues, the Reagan presidency was explicitly shaped by these experiences in mass media, even as it occluded their shaping influence.
To illustrate, the introduction begins with a black-and-white photo of Nancy Reagan at the 1984 Republican National Convention, waving to a giant video projection of her husband. This image is a synecdoche for the mediatized relationship between Reagan and the people. Raphael argues that “[i]n the production and the reception of Reagan’s video greeting, various incarnations of the politician as performer flash together and circulate. These performances illuminate an intricate network of connections between statecraft and stagecraft, political and cultural representation, media and mimesis” (2). Alluding to both Ernst Kantorowicz’s famous analysis of the “king’s two bodies” and Walt Whitman’s concept of the “body electric,” Raphael suggests that, in this image, Reagan was able to exploit the confusion between the president’s body and the body politic by using his body electric.
Chapter 1, “The Culture of Performance,” traces “the genealogy of the body electric” in American politics. Noting the impact of electricity upon American culture, Raphael cites Henry Adams’s reflections upon the dynamo he witnessed in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900 in Paris. Remarking with awe upon the force of this new technology, Adams wrote: “No more relation could he discover between the steam and the electric current than between the Cross and the cathedral. The forces were interchangeable if not reversible, but he could only see an absolute fiat in electricity as faith” (qtd. in Raphael 32). Adams’s “fiat in electricity” becomes a recurring theme in the book, allowing Raphael to compare the trajectory of the Reagan presidency to the rise of electrification. For him, Reagan’s “fiat of [sic] electricity” was a triad of social forces that converged at precisely the right historical moment to propel him to the presidency: “the training Reagan received answered Henry Adams’s call at the dawn of the twentieth century for a ‘new education’ that would address the conditions produced by the rise of corporate capitalism, mechanical science, and mass culture” (15–16).
The next two chapters detail Reagan’s training in radio. As Raphael relates in chapter 2, “The Voice of the Electronic Age,” Reagan’s first radio experience was at age 9, playing with a crystal radio set under a bridge in rural northwest Illinois, his boyhood home. After graduating from Eureka College, Reagan’s first job was as a radio announcer in Davenport, Iowa, in which he began training the vocal skills of his body electric. Chapter 3, “Sounding the Nation,” discusses the ways in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the medium of radio to his advantage, and the impact that he had on Reagan. Reagan mentions the “strong, gentle, confident voice” (99) of FDR in his autobiography, and Peggy Noonan, his speechwriter, explains that she crafted Reagan’s “presidential voice” with recordings of FDR in mind.
Chapter 4, “Moving Pictures,” covers Reagan’s career in cinema and its impact on his public image. After...