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The President Electric: Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Performance by Timothy Raphael

Raphael, Timothy. The President Electric: Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. 271 pages; 10 illustrations; $65.00 cloth, $26.95 paper.

Peg leg jeans, the new Madonna in Lady Gaga, not to mention the midterm elections, and we are caught on reruns of the 1980s. Linking Ronald Reagan and his wannabe assassin John Hinkley Jr., the book examines Reagan’s lifetime training as the near Frankenstein fulfillment of the body electric—a spell-binding leviathan propelled by our own desires to be cast as “stars, emperors, and czars” in a utopian media-ocracy. The shift from “discipline to performance” that Jon McKenzie put forward in Perform or Else extends in The President Electric to the 19th century emergence of electricity and moving pictures. From Walt Whitman’s “I sing the body electric,” to Henry Adams’ muse of matter turning to motion, James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Zelig, and the collective embrace of the performing self in the popular television show Fame, Raphael examines the cultural shift brought on by “the fiat of electricity”—a trinity of mechanical science, corporate capitalism, and mass culture (32). We now function, as Michael Warner claims in Publics and Counterpublics, within multiple publics defined by the tension between that which is seen and produced. The image of Reagan became the ultimate incandescence, “diffused to infinity,” fragmented into the interminable imagination of a surrogate republic, and made possible through the promise of multiplicity and providence bound up in the electric. Raphael writes, "Ronald Reagan's career illuminates in fine detail the evolution of electronic media's status as the church of contemporary politics" (20).

Be consoled, this is no Reagan biography. Instead, Timothy Raphael charts the waters for “stagecraft” that overrides and at times seemingly clones “statecraft.” In some cases it involves deception: a populace easily wooed when the messenger performs well. A perhaps more telling premise is that “culture leads politics” (Grossberg 1992, 255). As Raphael observes, affect and beliefs inhabit a primary realm that drags behind it the banalities of reason and due process. Thus policy, laws, and governance become mere nuisance. “The truth” is epiphenomenal; as Reagan infamously said, “facts are stupid things” (9). Firstly, facts and issues appear dolled up and “spun,” and secondly they are dismissed altogether as irrelevant.

Reagan's lifetime training was the product of this cultural-political shift. Christian church assemblies, Chautauqua Circuits, and especially sports radio allowed him the expanse of infinite listeners to practice the technique of a “voice that smiles” (84). Raphael shows us how press and politics in the White House were irradicably altered by this techne of appearances: how George Shultz coached Reagan through the Gorbachev Summit literally referring to each moment as “scenes.” When news agents complained of exclusion outside of those forums orchestrated by Reagan’s handlers, the response was a wall plaque stating: “You don’t tell us how to stage the news, we won’t tell you how to cover it.” Of course the revolting assumption is that politics are supposed to be staged by politicians, an expectation and duty of state to deliver the “goods” in a pre-packaged display as if it were a neutral and benign service consistent with stewardship of the common good. Ultimately, in a society plugged in and saturated by habitual dramatization, the two—stagecraft and statecraft—become teleological equals. In this logic we can see that "Reagan's performance success was," as Raphael writes, "normative not aberrant, a paradigmatic expression of the seminal role of the body electric in a fully dramatized society" (6).

The President Electric is an extremely relevant book to read this year (if you did not already last year) precisely because it deals with the antecedents of a media-state immune to truth-telling and bolstered by a “culture of performance” that esteems and even trolls this fabricated reality over even approximations of the real. Ten years of diligent research, accessible and passionate prose, plus a succinct measure of insider dirt make this book a compelling read. Ultimately, it presses us to consider a broader set of questions: can we extract performance from the desiring, laboratory-making public once bound into church and monarchs from the omnipresent condition of the political? Or, are we tracing the genealogy of performance and the political as inseparable entities that have, as Raphael writes, constructed the power of performance and the performance of power? And where then do we begin to restore or newly tell truth? After all, as I have heard in reruns of a different (and ultimately much more powerful kind), “our only real weapon is truth itself.”

Angela Marino Segura is currently completing her Ph.D. at New York University in Spanish and Performance Studies. Her research areas include theatre and performance in the Americas, popular fiesta and carnival, political theory, Caribbean and Latin American literature and film. Her dissertation is entitled, "Dancing Devils: Performance and Politics in the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela." Marino Segura begins a post-doctoral Chancellor's Research Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley in January of 2011.

Works Cited

Grossberg, Lawrence. 1992. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture. New York: Routledge.