Framing memory through eulogy: Ronald Reagan's long good-bye

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On August 12' 1996' Nancy Reagan' the former First Lady' gave tribute to her husband during the Republican National Convention in San Diego. Mrs. Reagan spoke briefly but poignantly following a videotape viewing dedicated to the former president. Her short tribute brought tears to many in the convention hall. At the conclusion of her presentation she repeated a line Ronald Reagan had spoken during the 1992 Republican National Convention: "When I'm gone' I hope it will be recorded that I appealed to your best hopes' not your worst fears." The tears and emotional displays at the convention were indicative of Reagan's cherished memory and heroic standing among Republicans. The tribute was also a testament to Reagan's rhetorical efforts in conditioning memories of his presidency. But above all else' the tribute given by Mrs. Reagan to her husband (quoting her husband's own words) was situated within the context of death. As such' the tribute took on a eulogistic form-a eulogy before death. Why would a living former president be given a tribute that borders on a eulogy? This tribute and other speeches' I contend' were consistent with a strategic effort on the part of Ronald Reagan and those entrusted with the construction of his historical place to frame the public memory of his role in renewing the American dream. All leaders are concerned with their heritage and consequently are eager to secure their place in history. Presidents' in particular' are prone to the practice of conditioning memories. These efforts are often understood in terms of the recognized genre of the farewell addresses. My purpose in the present paper' however' is to set aside these generic qualities and instead attend to these efforts in terms of the rhetorical construction of public memory.1 While presidents seek to leave a legacy of their achievements in ofce' the construction of public memory requires additional rhetorical efforts that aim at mythologizing a president's time and space in the nation's collective memory.2 Like other recent presidents Reagan was concerned with his place in history' but unlike other presidents he pursued numerous opportunities to fuse eulogistic references to suggest his preferred memories. Late in his second term and on several occasions thereafter' Ronald Reagan used his speeches and public statements to condition memories in a unique way-by crafting his own eulogy. Reagan's efforts' I contend' are different from mere wishes of a leader for a good historical account of one's public life. Reagan' I submit' consciously sought rhetorical opportunities to condition his own legacy by crafting the very words he hoped others would utter after his ultimate departure. I arrive at this contention by analyzing Reagan's efforts at incorporating eulogistic elements in several of his late speeches and his efforts at framing the discourse of his public memory. Ronald Reagan understood better than most recent presidents the power of rhetoric and mastered its practices throughout his political life. He would often suggest the narratives that would one day reflect on his presidency and his political life. At the zenith of his many years in politics he began to write his nal chapter and to project a historical account of his political role and significance. Eulogistic elements would thus fuse themselves into several of Reagan's late public orations' such as his 1989 farewell address and his 1992 Republican Convention address. I ground my discussion in the functions of the Greek funeral orations. I supplement this discussion with the notion of time and timing and the conversion of time into space.3 The connecting thought here is the view that eulogies are temporal discourses meant to construct timeless memories and consequently seek to construct future space for such memories The eulogy seeks an enduring presence located in an audience member's memory. Likewise' eulogies to prominent individuals seek presence in a community's myth and narrative. I stipulate here that similar to the Greek epitaphioi that established Athens through myths and sacred values attributed to its past heroes' in departing and eulogizing the polis' Reagan eulogized himself to secure historical memories. I argue that in fusing eulogistic elements in his late speeches' Reagan sought to offer an account of his presidency that he hoped would be accepted and repeated after his ultimate departure. In other words' he hoped to condition a preferred account of his presidency that would be installed in the polity's public memory. Reagan developed his persona mythically by converting the temporal into timeless and hence into memory.4 The framing of public memory was constructed by turning the temporal into sacred and moral text via eulogistic references.5 Thus' the temporal Reagan sought to become a mythically enduring Reagan by constructing space for his time in the polity's story. In so doing' Reagan hoped to invest his political persona with moral imperatives whose very endurance could guarantee memory. The connection between rhetoric and public memory has ancient origins. The ancient Athenians recognized the importance of public address in crafting stable and stabilizing public memories. Contemporary students of public memory would do well to attend to classical rhetorical notions of the construction of public memories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFraming Public Memory
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9780817354909
StatePublished - 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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