When Sarah Palin quoted Ronald Reagan in the vice presidential debate, I was moved. At the culmination of her cocky evening at the podium opposite Joe Biden, her final statement quoting Reagan was a moment of seriousness-of-purpose that took me by surprise: “It was Ronald Reagan who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction. We don’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. We have to fight for it and protect it and then hand it to them, so that they shall do the same, or we’re going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free.”
This is one of those quotes that works like a good horoscope, broad enough to let you fill in its carefully hidden blanks. It could be talking about loose nukes, or civil liberties, or national defense or some competing ideology seeking global dominance. Except this was Reagan — so of course the creepy truth is that he was predicting what would happen if we got Medicare.
Nothing sobers up a teary civics geek like learning that the quote on which I projected my own feelings about freedom…was actually supposed to make me fear the idea of old people getting health care.
If you are paranoid about this stuff, and trying to figure out what part of crazy base-land the dark-lords-of-the-Right were trying to reach with this garbled transmission, you can stop. Back in 2004 we had to decode references to Dred Scott to understand Bush was winking at the anti-choice crowd, but here the secret decoder ring is the October 6th Wall Street Journal: “John McCain would pay for his health plan with major reductions to Medicare and Medicaid, a top aide said.” Ta-daa!
When we quote somebody, when we invoke Reagan or Jefferson or Dickinson, we’re trying to borrow some of their glory. It’s a magic trick, a moment when a speechwriter hopes the audience will hear “Reagan” and think “He was a great communicator! Like Palin!”
It works both ways, though — be careful of context, and of who you accidentally let slip that you’ve been reading. When Palin, referring to the value of “small towns” in her nomination speech, quoted Westbrook Pegler, the nearly forgotten American nativist and pseudo-fascist, some of his “glory” rubbed off on her as well.
Palin also made up a quote to help along her bungled answer to Katie Couric about the separation of church and state: “Thomas Jefferson also said ‘never underestimate the wisdom of the people.'” Super. Except as far as anyone can tell, Jefferson never said that. And even very wise people had trouble understanding what that piece of invented Jeffersonian wisdom has to do with the First Amendment.
Quoting helps us exalt our own ideas by hitching them to historical ones. Does it matter if those causes were Fascism or Exceptionalism or Anti-Healthy-Old-People? Not if nobody’s paying attention. But we are paying attention now. Palin hitched her wagon to a long line of politicians when she invoked the “city on a hill,” but she took that line in a fresh, mavericky, spooky direction. Look: “And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here.”
When Reagan talked about the “shining city on a hill,” he was trying to link himself to John Winthrop, founding governor of the Plymouth plantation. Winthrop’s sermon, the origin of the “city on a hill” deal, is worth Googling — “we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” “Shining,” and “unapologetic” don’t figure in it at all, but it does talk about others’ necessities, about posterity, about unity, and about being held accountable.
Rachel Maddow is host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC and a show of the same name on Air America Radio. Within days of her debut as host of the MSNBC show, she managed something that the New York Times called “virtually unheard of.” She doubled the audience for a cable news channel’s 9 p.m. hour. Poet Jill McDonough’s first book is Habeas Corpus (Salt Modern Poets).
Reprinted with permission of the Women’s Media Center.