"An Empire of Ideals": The Chimeric Imagination of Ronald Reagan. By Justin D. Garrison. New York: Routledge, 2013. 237 pp.
In An Empire of Ideals, Justin D. Garrison presents a study of Ronald Reagan's presidency with a specific focus on the role of Reagan's imagination in shaping his public image and his ideals. The author traces the concept of imagination from its classical western roots, where it is seen as passive, through its reworking during the Romantic period, where it is understood as creative, connecting Reagan to the latter conception and ultimately arguing that, because of his imagination, Reagan was less a conventional conservative than most people assume (p. 196). While those looking for a rhetorical analysis may not find An Empire of Ideals a satisfactory study of Reagan (despite a number of close readings of speeches spanning his political life), those who appreciate an applied philosophical approach will likely find Garrison's subtle critique of the president's imagination illuminating.
The volume opens appropriately with a description of Reagan's funeral, an event through which Garrison views the former president's ability to create lasting influence, writing that "more than most American presidents, Reagan consciously appealed to the imagination of his listeners" (p. 3). He asserts that, by studying Reagan's imagination as it was expressed in his presidential speeches, the book addresses a "need to examine and assess the fundamental quality and significance of Reagan's imagination, including its historical resonance in American and Western political thought" (p. 7). The author traces Reagan's worldview to his early life circumstances, from his work for General Electric to his work in Hollywood and his role in the anti-Communist alliance between the Screen Actor's Guild and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and then to his early political career. In subsequent chapters, Garrison offers a close reading of Reagan's speeches in order to explore the manifestation of Reagan's imagination as it emerged in his optimism; his view of the American people; his affinity for the American Revolution; his understanding of the proper role of the American government and the place of the United States in foreign relations; and his visions for peace, technology, and religion.
Garrison focuses on the element of Reagan's imagination that he labels "chimeric," that is, "having prominent elements of optimism, naivete, and, some would...