My close-up view of America's other cowboy presidency



I was reading recently about a brilliant young Australian basketballer who was trying to decide whether she should accept an offer of a sports scholarship at the University of Oregon and I wanted to get in touch with her and say, 'Go! Don't hesitate.' I would write to her, I thought, as memories flooded back ...

Ronald Reagan dressed as cowboyOn 20 January 1981 Ronald Reagan became the 40th President of the United States. He was no political neophyte. Though a native of Illinois, he moved to California in the 1930s and served two successful terms as governor of that state (1967-75).

But before — and even to some extent during — that successful interlude, he was much better known for his previous career in film and television. A B-grade movie actor, he came into his own as an archetypal figure of the old west, the TV host of the long running Death Valley Days. By the time he ran for governor, he was truly a westerner — an established Californian, a horseman, a man of action.  

Along with this 'mythic western image of rugged independence and self-reliance' went a remarkable political make-over. As a young Illinoisan, Reagan had been straightforwardly a liberal Democrat but following his move to California and his experience of Hollywood's culture and political complexity, he became a hard line conservative, emphatically and vocally anti-communist, the champion of individualism and personal initiative for whom even the tepid 'socialism' of the New Deal was dangerous.

He metamorphosed into an official Republican in the 1960s and his two terms as governor powered his bid for the Republican presidential nomination which, after a couple of failed attempts, he won in 1981. He campaigned for a second term in 1984 with the slogan it was 'Morning in America' and won the largest Electoral College victory in American history.

He was well into enjoying his overwhelmingly approved second term when, unnoticed by the President, his administration or anyone outside the city of Eugene, Oregon, I arrived in the United States.

I had worked abroad several times previously, in England and Europe, but had never been to the US, had not entertained any particular desire to do so and, in any case, hadn't been invited! That changed when, encouraged to apply for a Fulbright Scholar in Residency at the University of Oregon — and following one of the more gruelling interviews I'd encountered in an interview-strewn professional life — I got it!

My new colleagues were a lively, interesting and welcoming group. On my arrival in Eugene, in dreadful weather and near midnight, I was met at the airport by Dr Glen Love from the English department, driven to my accommodation — the home of the University President then on leave — then conducted round the nearest never-closed supermarket so I could 'stock up' in case the weather worsened.


"To some, Reagan, the B-grade actor and TV host, remained a sort of rogue president who might without warning break out of the constraints of his office."


The next evening I joined staff, their families and some students at their favourite pizza restaurant. It was then, on only my second night, that I encountered without too much surprise another dimension of my visit.

For all his demonstrable popularity, Reagan was a divisive figure. His Hollywood and TV show provenance were regarded with enduring suspicion by some, and many doubted his capacity to deal with the dangerous complexities of Cold War politics. As the weeks passed, I noticed how, among many of my colleagues and in a gradually growing group of friends and acquaintances, there was a real apprehension, a sort of contained nervousness about how things might evolve. To some, though a minority, Reagan — the B-grade actor and TV host — remained a sort of rogue president who might in some way and without warning break out of the constraints of his office.

I was meanwhile enjoying immensely my time at a truly great university among an extraordinary array of colleagues in many disciplines. Of course, I watched the deteriorating international situation with close interest and alarm. My colleagues and friends were deeply distressed by what was developing and when, on 14 April, we woke to the news that US aircraft had bombed Muammar Gaddhafi's Libyan headquarters, many of them were in despair.

It's easy to say now but 'twas ever thus and much more evil things have happened to and in and because of America since then. Even in these awful times and despite the plus ca change moment of a possibly rogue presidency, I would encourage the young basketballer to go to Oregon because, below the turmoil of hype, anxiety, nonsense and peril that is the contemporary America pictured for us routinely, there persists a day-to-day world in which decency and enlightenment doggedly yet passionately struggle on.


Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, University of Oregon, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

I wonder why Reagan is always described as a 'B-grade actor'. No doubt he needed some A-grade acting skills when confronting Congress or his Democratic rivals. Reagan attended Eureka College, Illinois, so that's another plus in his favour! Having lived in USA for a year in my early 20's (Watergate era), I endorse your view of America. A grand place to visit.

Pam | 04 May 2017  

"Reagan was a divisive figure." To some extent a President will always be divisive, because of the pendulum-like swing of the people due to the lasting tensions between the concerns of the individuals and those of the community. When the concerns of one side are addressed, the other is aggrieved, and so it goes on. The exact balance must not only be achieved, but it must be marketed to both sides. A near impossible task, at least in the long term. How well Trump can manage it remains to be seen.

Robert Liddy | 05 May 2017  

Perhaps people like Trump and Reagan frighten the comfortable because they demand that they (the comfortable) face reality rather than fall in behind the bullies of the world in the hope that they will not be bullied. Meanwhile the persons behind the scenes seem to have calmed Trump down somewhat since his early blustering bravado.

john frawley | 05 May 2017  

A B-grade actor is someone who appears in second grade movies and never becomes a real 'star' Pam. Bombing Libya was supposedly in retaliation for the Berlin disco bombing, Brian, the sort of 'whichever eye I can reach' response. Reagan was probably not a great president. I am not sure Trump, being a native New Yorker and relatively well educated, is quite as naive as Reagan was. I think it unlikely he will go senile in office. Not sure whether 'cowboy' is quite the right description. 'Mad dog' is the description of someone dangerous and unpredictable. Trump is perceived as a mad dog in the Middle East, where they are used to cruel leaders who strike without warning. Many Middle Easterners either admire or tolerate them. He is certainly popular with the Saudis and Gulf States for bombing Assad's Syria. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban are a real threat to society, he would also be admired. Isis/Daesh are going to be defeated. Trump will get good publicity and become a hero in certain countries because of this. Yes, there are many places in America like the University of Oregon - Berkeley for one - where Trump may not get high political approval ratings. In others he would. We really don't know how his presidency will turn out. Really.

Edward Fido | 07 May 2017  

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