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Why Do People Like Ronald Reagan So Much?

I spent 17 hours at a birthday party for the Gipper to find out.

Over the next few months, the dedicated Reagan fan will have numerous opportunities to celebrate the fortieth president. There are tributes at a NASCAR race in California in late March and at Chicago’s Wrigley Field in early August. The Gipper’s hometown— Dixon, Illinois—will host a “Dutch” ice cream social in September; Washington will throw a gala in May, and London will unveil a statue on July 4. The occasion, of course, is that 2011 is the one-hundredth anniversary of Reagan’s birth.

Recently, I attended one of these gatherings: a 17-hour birthday bash for the Gipper at the Rope Walk Tavern in Baltimore, a handsome brick building in the gentrifying enclave of Federal Hill. Baltimore may seem like an unlikely locale for such an event—the city hasn’t elected a Republican mayor in 44 years—but that didn't deter one of the bar’s owners, Marc McFaul. By mid-morning, cars lined up in the parking deck, featuring bumper stickers like “What Would Reagan Do?” and “America needs Ronald Reagan now more than ever.” Inside, the tavern featured three murals of the late president, two Reagan busts, and two life-size bronze statues imported from Thailand.  

To anyone who lives in Washington, it can seem like every year is Reagan’s special year—conservative think tanks and politicians constantly invoke his name. But the many events occurring around the country this year had made me curious about a different type of fan: regular people who just really, really love Reagan. I hoped that, at the Rope Walk Tavern, I could figure out why.

Marc McFaul is 39, with black, gelled hair and a boyish face. The owner of the Role Walk Tavern told me that, over the years, he has made many Reagan-related pilgrimages—to the Reagan Library, the Reagan Ranch, the Reagan aircraft—and has hosted dozens of Republican fundraisers at his bar. When he got married ten years ago, the priest closed the mass by saying, “With God—and Ronald Reagan—among us.” And, for 16 years, he has thrown Reagan birthday parties, to honor his bar’s “patron saint.” A few years ago, McFaul’s daughter Sami, who is now six, was disappointed to learn that Reagan himself would not be attending the party. In the car on the way to the event, her mother had to explain that Reagan had died. This greatly troubled Sami during the cake-lighting ceremony—surely the assembled adults were unaware of their mistake. In the middle of McFaul’s speech, she blurted out, “Daddy! Reagan’s dead!” McFaul recalled, “I looked her right in the face, and said, ‘You need to know this now: Your daddy’s crazy.’”  

Still, the roots of McFaul’s Reagan mania are a bit of a mystery, even to those who know him best. After all, he was just nine when Reagan made it to the Oval Office, and McFaul never actually voted for the Gipper. “We were conservative, but I really don’t know how Marc got to be how he is,” said Carolyn McFaul, Marc’s mother, who was wearing an orange sweatshirt screen-printed with Reagan’s face. “He gets fanatical about things,” was his older sister Christy’s take.

When I put the question directly to McFaul, his answer was oddly unsatisfying—he admires Reagan’s integrity and humor, that he was a good guy, he said. As the bar filled up, I asked some of the other patrons about why they were there, and their answers, too, were often generic. “He was a man’s man.” “He knew what he believed in.” “He loved America and made Americans proud to be Americans.” No one mentioned his policies.

Patricia Brady, a kindergarten teacher from Washington, recounted standing in line all night to walk past Reagan’s casket in the Capitol Rotunda, which she called “absolutely one of the greatest experiences of my life.” She added, “I’m 60 years old, and I’m looking at this”— she gestured at the various artistic representations of Reagan around the room—“I mean, I have tears in my eyes, and I haven’t had enough beers yet for it to just be that.” “You didn’t know if it was Hollywood, or just his poise when he spoke,” Laura Gurczynski, another patron, explained. “But you just felt safe.”  

In his book How Brands Become Icons, former Oxford marketing professor Doug Holt theorizes that Reagan partly achieved his mythic stature by using American frontier motifs. “He did this by acting out the characters of the Westerns of old: talking in straight-spoken language, lashing out at big government, bureaucrats, the ‘evil empire,’” Holt said in a recent e-mail conversation. “It’s no different than religion really: You need rituals to keep the meaning vested in the icon. … The ceremonies, the posters in the living room, the memorabilia all serve this function.” Holt added, “People have to work especially hard when the person is dead.”

Around 9 p.m., McFaul led a few hundred guests in a round of “Happy Birthday.” On a table sat a sheet cake—yellow, with strawberry filling, white frosting, and edible photos of Ronnie and Nancy. Guests came up to grab a slice, careful not to hack into the Gipper’s face. Making his way to the left side of the room, McFaul bellowed, “If you weren’t sure we were a Reagan bar before, I think you’ll know now!” In the end, McFaul allowed, it was possible that his obsession with Reagan wasn’t entirely rational. “You see these nutty people with housefuls of stuff—people who dress like Elvis, have Elvis toilet paper, put Elvis everywhere,” he said. “They need a life, but, then, I think, I could be one of them.” 

Tiffany Stanley is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

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