Of Age In Reagan's America
By The Plaid Adder
Many years ago, before I really knew her well, a friend
of mine mentioned that she would have to go back to the east
coast that week for her mother-in-law's funeral. I said that
I was sorry to hear about her mother in law passing away.
She said, "Oh, don't be - she was an absolute cow, and everybody
As constant readers will know, I don't shock easily; but
that floored me. Although I believe in honesty, I felt that
there was something brutal about her telling the truth in
that particular situation. Later, I realized that this was
sort of a thing with her: as a matter of principle, she refused
to engage in what she felt was hypocrisy simply in order to
comply with the unwritten law that dictates that we can never
speak ill of the dead.
To some extent, I can sympathize; there is something creepy
about the way death revises history, and in the case of public
figures it often seems to lead to a kind of national amnesia.
At the same time, I think there is something - not necessarily
positive, but necessary about the special treatment we extend
to the dead. It's one way of recognizing our kinship with
them, and acknowledge our own human limitations and failures.
We have all, at various points in our life, done harm and
done wrong and otherwise failed those around us; and we know
that if it were us, we would want our survivors to pull that
gauzy curtain across our lives so that only the good shines
So the death of Ronald Reagan inspires me with strangely
mixed feelings. Knowing as we all do that he had suffered
for years with advanced Alzheimer's, and knowing as many of
us do what advanced Alzheimer's does to its victims and their
loved ones, we all realize that his death must have been a
release for him and his family. As a harmless old man who
has certainly suffered enough, Reagan has my best wishes for
a peaceful crossing over; and his family has my sympathies.
At the same time, I cannot forget that as a president, Reagan
presided over many of the changes that took this country on
its first steps down the steep slope along which it is now
hurtling at an alarming clip; and that means that when I see
people on television talking about what a wonderful president
he was, I can't help but feel the spirit of my irreverent
friend stirring within me. And when I remember the enormous
stink made by Rove and his pack of hounds about the Democrats
"politicizing" the memorial service held after Paul Wellstone
died tragically and too young in a plane crash during his
Senate campaign, and compare and contrast the lack of any
kind of criticism leveled at Bush for swiftly incorporating
Reagan's death and funeral into his own presidential campaign,
well, it does start to sting a little.
All the same, the man is dead, and I can't find it in my
heart to go after Reagan with the same zest and gusto with
which I routinely pursue his ideological bastard child, George
W. Bush. And anyway I don't really want to. I never felt about
Reagan the way I feel about Bushes I and II. When he defeated
Carter in November of 1980, I was eleven years old. I came
of age during the Reagan years; and for better or for worse,
he is part of me too, as much as he is a part of the people
who have turned out in their droves to mourn for him sincerely
and with a real grief that I would never want to mock.
So the only thing I can think of to do this week is to offer
up my own memories of Reagan and his presidency. They aren't
all pleasant; but they are all real, or as real as I can make
them after swimming back through twenty-four years to what
seems to me now like another lifetime.
* * * *
One of my few clear memories of the 1980 presidential campaign
is a TV commercial for Jimmy Carter. It showed him walking
up the path toward the White House at dusk, briefcase in hand.
A voice read out a list of all the things Carter had accomplished
during his first term in office. Eventually Carter entered
the White House, and after a few more seconds of voice-over
you saw a light go on in the Oval Office as darkness fell.
The voice said, "And he's still working." Fade to black.
As I remember it now, there was a sense of defeat hanging
over the whole spot; Carter seemed terribly burdened by his
briefcase, and I felt bad for him having to work through the
night. I don't remember any of Reagan's commercials that clearly.
I'm sure they were much more positive and upbeat. That's one
thing you keep hearing in the tributes; everyone loved that
I don't remember feeling strongly about the 1980 election.
In 1976, when my second-grade class held a mock election,
I voted for Ford, because it seemed unfair to me to take his
job away from him and give it to someone else. I remember
going to my father's college reunion in 1977 and trying to
pick a sign to carry in the parade. At the time, I didn't
realize that they were all signs making fun of the new president.
Most of them had to do with Carter's background as a peanut
farmer from the south, which didn't seem that funny to me;
after all, one of my father's aunts was a peanut farmer from
the south, and he had always had tremendous respect for her.
My mother wouldn't let me carry the sign that read "They're
making hay in the White House," although she wouldn't explain
to me why. I ended up carrying one that read "Wouldn't George
Washington Carver be proud."
Three years later I still was not old enough to really know
or care about the differences between the Republicans and
the Democrats. I was old enough to be disturbed by the hostage
crisis. And I remember thinking that it was very unfair that
the hostages got released right after Carter left office,
as if it was done on purpose to spite him.
That winter, after Reagan was shot by Hinckley, I wrote
a little poem about praying for his safety. I was in sixth
grade. At that point in my life I was really pretty conservative;
I hated change, believed in God, thought swearing was bad,
identified with authority, had no tolerance for rebels, and
looked forward to preserving my virginity until my marriage.
My mother was taking a course on liberation theology at a
local Catholic university as part of a masters' degree. When
my social studies teacher told us to do an oral report on
a foreign country of our choice, I picked El Salvador.
I read articles about the death squads and about U.S. military
support for the right-wing regime. Knowing that teachers always
rewarded you for incorporating visual aids into your presentations,
I drew my first two political cartoons, only one of which
I can now remember. It showed Alexander Haig standing in front
of a stove holding a frozen TV dinner labeled "Cold War,"
and saying to himself, "Well, there's nothing else in the
fridge. May as well heat this up."
Before the presentation, I passed around a little questionnaire
to the audience asking them what they knew about El Salvador
and what they thought the U.S. should do. Afterwards I passed
around the same questionnaire and had them take it again.
The first questionnaire revealed that most of them knew very
little about El Salvador, and there was no real consensus
about what should be done. The second questionnaire showed
strong support for a total U.S. pullout. I see this now not
so much as a testament to my rhetorical skills as proof that
people who have not kept themselves informed are alarmingly
easy to manipulate.
In the weeks that followed, as my fellow-students gave presentations
on France and its many cheeses, I lost interest; and when,
a year later, I encountered an seventh-grade history teacher
who could not stop himself from ranting day in and day out
about the evil things that our country was doing in the world,
I was intensely annoyed with him. I dedicated one page of
my notebook to writing down unspoken rebuttals to his diatribes.
I didn't think to rip the page out before turning in my notebook
for review; it came back with some of his comments scrawled
in the margins, including the line, "If you're not part of
the solution, you're part of the problem."
Looking back, I imagine that he saw that page as a sign
of hope; after all, it proved that I was a) listening to him
and b) engaged enough to be angry. And the only reason it
upset me, of course, was that I really believed in America
the beautiful. I was sold on the idea that America was fundamentally
good and always acted altruistically and in the interests
of freedom. And that, certainly, was how Ronald Reagan wanted
me to feel; at least it was what was all over his speeches.
Knowing that in the case of El Salvador our government had
knowingly supported a regime with an abysmal human rights
record solely because they believed it would advance our interests
in the region somehow did not penetrate the idealistic vision
of America that I had absorbed from the Reagan era media.
I don't know how exactly I held on to both things at the same
time, unless it was because everyone else was doing it. Just
in time for the re-release of 1984, doublethink had
arrived in America. Death squads became "freedom fighters;"
ketchup became a vegetable; cutting taxes while increasing
military spending became fiscal responsibility.
Later on, when interactive fiction games were in vogue for
those of us who were using those newfangled "personal computers,"
the game based on Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to
the Galaxy defined "intelligence" as the ability to believe
two contradictory things at the same time. Adams, of course,
never got to be one of Reagan constituents; but he had Margaret
Thatcher, and really, it was almost as good.
I began to lose that ability during the 1984 presidential
campaign. In fact, I think I can pinpoint the moment at which
it disappeared: it was during a debate between Reagan and
Mondale, when I realized that Mondale was making sense and
Reagan wasn't. I don't mean "making sense" in an ideological
way; I'm talking about the ability to construct and articulate
a coherent argument. At the same time, I noticed that the
color in Reagan's cheeks was actually badly applied makeup,
and that considerably more than Grecian Formula 44 had been
called into play in an effort to disguise the obvious signs
of advanced aging. Reagan was revealed to me as an actor who
had been made up and thrust onto the stage to turn in a performance.
He could still remember his lines with enough prompting; but
when it came to improv, he was a disaster.
Mondale lost in a landslide anyway. That was a turning point.
For me, and for the country. For the country, it was an acknowledgment
that they cared more about how their president made them feel
than about what he was actually going to be doing. What that
debate taught me was that the America I thought I was living
in was in fact an illusion.
The point was driven home for me again in January 1985 when
I watched Reagan's second inaugural address on television.
Toward the end of his speech, which he delivered with all
the warmth, conviction, and sincerity that all of his mourners
are remembering now, he talked about how this modern world
of ours is "lit by lightning." The commentators pulled that
line out afterwards as an example of what made him such a
great speaker. Well, it is a good line; it had made a great
impression on me when I first encountered it in the final
speech of Tennessee Williams's play The Glass Menagerie.
I kept waiting for one of the commentators to point out that
it was actually Tennessee Williams who wrote that line, and
that Reagan had merely borrowed it. Nobody ever did.
It's a small thing; but it made a difference to me. In Billy
Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis complains bitterly
in a voiceover that the audience never realizes that someone
had to sit down and write the movie they're watching: "They
just think the actors make it up as they go along." But since
Reagan's second inaugural I have never been able to forget
that when a president stands up at the podium he is not reading
his own words, and that the man we think we know is actually
a character who has been written and produced by the crowd
of speechwriters, advisors, and handlers that clusters around
him. I know perfectly well that this was true for Kennedy
as it was true for Clinton.
Now that we live in a media age, we are doomed I suppose
to personality politics; we are voting not so much for a man
who can run the government as for a character that we are
going to be following for the next four years, and so naturally
we want it to be someone we enjoy watching. As important as
television was for Kennedy, it was Reagan - our first actor-turned-president,
but alas probably not our last - who was really our first
made-for-television president. And once I knew that, I felt
the same uneasiness about him then that I do now about the
explosion of reality TV shows. I don't mind fiction. It is
one of my greatest pleasures. It's when fiction starts passing
itself off as reality that I start to get antsy.
Reagan wasn't half bad as an actor. On television one time
during his second term I saw him in a supporting role as "The
Yank" in a World War II film called The Hasty Heart.
He was funny, outgoing, full of heart, enormously sympathetic.
As a president, at the same time, I began to find him very
alarming. I remember my anxiety about the bombing campaign
in Libya. Once again, I was still partly buying the media
line: it was precisely because they had me so convinced that
Qaddafi was an insane master villain bent on unleashing nuclear
disaster that I was sure that by bombing him we would goad
him into starting World War III.
World War III fortunately never materialized, despite the
fact that for the entire 1980s we all seemed to be expecting
it. I couldn't watch all of The Day After; I fled just
about as soon as the first bombs hit. But I do vividly remember
being on the edge of my seat through the end of WarGames.
And I have a very clear memory of watching the sun set one
time at summer camp and hearing someone observe that it looked
like a mushroom cloud, and then spending the next ten minutes
wondering if it could actually be a mushroom cloud. Had World
War III already started, somewhere far away? How would we
know if it had?
No wonder people loved Reagan. He had the gift of making
them feel safe, whether or not they were. If Clinton rose
to popularity on his ability to feel our pain, Reagan's gift
was his ability to feel no pain, and to pass on that serene,
optimistic, tranquilized bliss to everyone who followed him.
And in the last phases of the Cold War, there was a great
need for that. It's not his fault that for whatever reason,
his magic had stopped working on me.
Last night I went through old issues of my high school newspaper
looking at my first weak attempts at political satire. Some
of the pieces I remember writing appear to have been lost;
but I came across something that surprised me. Every year
we did an April Fool's issue. My contribution, one year, was
an Onion-style piece reporting that Ferdinand Marcos was coming
to my hometown to start a new career as a teacher in my high
school's history department.
Good Lord. I'd totally forgotten about Marcos.
I had remembered that under Reagan's watch we illegally
sold arms to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua; that we
supported the Mujaheddin against the Soviets in Afghanistan;
that we supported Saddam Hussein's regime because it was antagonistic
to Iran (to whom we were selling weapons on the sly - I know,
it makes your brain hurt if you think about it too long);
that we had defied the World Court in order to mine the Nicaraguan
harbors. But I'd forgotten about Marcos, longtime dictator
of the Phillippines and close personal friend of Ronald Reagan,
who had his major political rival assassinated, held a phony
investigation which cleared the assassins of wrongdoing, tampered
with a supposedly 'free' election and then refused to acknowledge
that his late rival's wife had won the popular vote anyway;
and eventually had to flee the country after the rats deserted
his sinking ship.
At the time, however, I was apparently up on all this. There
are numerous jokes about Marcos potentially interfering with
student body elections, not being qualified to teach the elective
on international law and human rights, and perhaps offering
a course on political corruption, in which he has 'reportedly
had some experience.' Nothing about Imelda and the shoes,
though. I can't imagine why I passed that up.
The piece now seems to exhale a kind of cynicism that must
have been new to me at the time - an ironic acknowledgment
that the corruptions we were supporting abroad would eventually
come home, and that the amoral dictator of a third world country
would fit right in among the citizens of a wealthy American
suburb. It marks, I suppose, the end of one stage in my political
education; and I have Ronald Reagan to thank for it.
* * * *
Reagan's passing will inevitably be referred to as the "end
of an era" for weeks to come. But in so many ways, we are
still in the Reagan era, despite the fall of the Soviet Union
and the end of the Cold War. Or rather, we are in a darker,
meaner, more dangerous version of the Reagan era. We are still
playing kingmaker in the rest of the world, this time with
Al Qaeda on the other edge of the board looming menacingly
over the dominoes.
Ivan Boesky and Michael Milkin have made way for Ken Lay
and Dick Cheney. Roy Cohn's mantle has fallen on Karl Rove's
shoulders. And even Reagan knew enough not to make Rumsfeld
his secretary of defense. The genial, protective, fatherly
God that Reagan so often invoked has transfigured into the
wrathful avenging God of the Apocalypse. The "family values"
rhetoric that started up on Reagan's watch has calcified into
outright anti-gay and anti-feminist bigotry. We are now doing
better in terms of treating AIDS, but we are no closer to
acknowledging the realities we need to acknowledge in order
to educate young people about it.
I celebrated Clinton's inauguration in 1992 by yelling,
"The Reagan years are over!" In fact, they were only on hiatus.
Ironically, it may be George W. Bush who finally brings an
end to the Reagan years, by taking his policies to such extremes
that their effects can no longer be disguised by a firm handshake
and the constant repetition of the word "freedom," and making
the country a hell that even the glow of nostalgia cannot
transfigure. Twenty years from now I will not look back on
the first four years of the twenty-first century with one-tenth
of the fondness with which, for all of their pain and trouble,
I still remember the Reagan years. I only hope that in 2024,
we will not be in some place that's even worse than here.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an
equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same
can be found at the Adder's
the Adder's Archive