Large public statues abound in all the great cities of Britain, but who pays them any attention?
The odd tourist gawps, and that’s it. How many Glaswegians ever cast a second glance at the various statues in George Square? How many could name even half of those eminent figures carved in stone?
And yet the sculptors keep getting commissions, the statues keep being erected. The latest big statue, of the 40th US president Ronald Reagan, will be unveiled later this week in Grosvenor Square, London. Created by the self- taught US sculptor Chas Fagan, it has had a cool advance reception from US diplomats. A US Embassy spokesman has emphasised that the statue is not a US government initiative. It is being funded by private Reagan admirers.
As the American Right flounders around looking for someone to take on President Barack Obama next year, how they must wish they could find someone with the charm and political finesse of Mr Reagan. The dark horse Republican contender, the former US ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, is apparently the one Republican Mr Obama really fears. Significantly, Mr Huntsman is a huge admirer of Mr Reagan.
The most remarkable thing about Mr Reagan was not how well he took to the presidency, but how late it came to him. He was 69 when he was elected. It is a paradox of our time that as people live longer and longer, we are now ruled by ever younger politicians. Leaders, particularly in the West, are often regarded as past it once they reach 60. Politicians like David Cameron and Mr Obama reach the top of the greasy pole when they are barely 40.
Mr Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, the son of Jack, an alcoholic shoe salesman, and Nellie, a half-Scottish teetotaller who had smeddum aplenty. His boyhood was unhappy; the family kept moving home. Young Reagan’s charm came from Jack, his ambition from Nellie.
It is salutary to look at where he was as he approached his 40s. Geographically, he was in Hollywood, a reasonably successful actor but a man regarded as devoid of real star quality. Politically and personally, he was nowhere.
He had married the actress Jane Wyman in the embarrassingly named Wee Kirk O’ The Heather, a chapel in the grounds of the old Hollywood cemetery. The union was a disaster. Ms Wyman found Mr Reagan, the future “great communicator”, cold and boring. “I’ll either die of boredom or I’ll kill him,” she said. He did not like people, including his wife, touching him. She soon divorced him for mental cruelty.
At this stage, Mr Reagan was still a Democrat and an avowed liberal, but as he began his unpleasant mission to root out Communists in the film industry, he transformed into a figure of the radical right.
His second wife, Nancy, was deeply ambitious. Although president Harry Truman, in Washington, dismissed the couple as “Hollywood riff raff”, Nancy and Ronnie plotted a formidable long-term political campaign, funded by rich Californian Republicans.
Mr Reagan became an unlikely but effective governor of California, and then at the age of 69 an even more unlikely but even more effective president of the US. He took folksiness to the point of parody, with a big jar of jelly beans on his desk, and a remarkable repertoire of gags and quips, which he deployed relentlessly.
He joked about his age, his memory lapses, his idleness and his ambitious wife. He summed up his style thus: “They say hard work never killed anyone, but I figure – why take the chance?” His carefully honed humility and his suspicion of big government were adored by many Americans who saw him as their champion. He made America at ease with itself.
Importantly, he could change his mind. He reversed his confrontational attitude towards the USSR, and became a solid friend of the reforming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Together they paved the way for the end of the Cold War. When he stood down, Mr Reagan left the world a much safer place than it had been eight years earlier.
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