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Coming Of Age In Reagan's America
June 9, 2004
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 hated her."

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 through.

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 optimism.

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 Lair.

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