For many Americans, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library is a place of solemn pilgrimage. This weekend, it is also the site of lavish celebrations marking what would have been the 100th birthday of “the great communicator”.
On Sunday, his widow Nancy will lay a wreath at his gravesite as F-18s launch from the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and a 21-gun salute is fired. There will be a Beach Boys concert, a six-feet-by-six-feet birthday cake topped with 20,000 jelly beans (Reagan’s favourite). And a bill of $5 million (pounds 3.1 million), to be settled using funds raised privately.
Among those paying homage in person are Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, both with presumed presidential aspirations in 2012. The formal start of the Republican presidential campaign will take place in May with a debate at, naturally, the Reagan library.
Perhaps more surprising is that there is a new claimant to the Reagan throne this year: President Barack Obama. Having once routinely derided Reagan as, in the words of Democratic greybeard Clark Clifford, an “amiable dunce”, the liberal establishment is now seeking to embrace him.
Obama first tried to grab Reagan’s mantle three years ago when he cited the Gipper as a way of taking a shot at the Clintons by saying that the Republican had “changed the trajectory of America” in a way that Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton had not. Reagan, he added, responded to a feeling that “we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship”.
Now, Obama sees Reagan’s aura as a potential political lifeline as he hopes to emulate his forerunner’s feat of receiving a drubbing in mid-term elections after two years (in 1982) followed by a landslide re-election victory two years after that (in 1984).
Obama’s recent State of the Union speech was full of self-conscious optimism (though the slogan “winning the future” is a pygmy compared with Reagan’s “morning in America”) and appeals to bipartisanship – a nod to the celebrated fact that Reagan managed to work with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a liberal Democrat.
Other Democrats, taking this a step further, are using Reagan as a stick to beat the modern Republican party, painting him as a moderate pragmatist who would be out of step with today’s hard-right ideologues.