In early 1981, as the Reagan administration was getting under way, its first cultural controversy began. Nancy Reagan wanted new china for the White House. The cost of the china was the problem. The Lenox pattern with a raised gold presidential seal in the center that the president’s wife chose came to $209,508 for 220–place settings. At a time when her husband was talking about cutting welfare eligibility and the misery index (inflation plus unemployment) was over 20 percent, Nancy Reagan’s desire for new china seemed like an idea borrowed from Marie Antoinette.
Democrats rubbed their hands in glee. What they failed to understand was that a new era was starting. American culture in the 1980s would be a culture based on triumph—on the admiration of power and status—and nothing would be more important to that culture than its symbols. Especially at the start, they were what allowed the president to insist, “We have every right to dream heroic dreams,”...
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