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March 4, 2004


Remembering -- and forgetting -- Reagan


"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." The Czech author Milan Kundera said that in one of his books. He went on to talk about the perversity of memory, of how on one occasion he'd actually felt a pang of nostalgia when looking at a photograph of Adolf Hitler. Not because he thought highly of Hitler -- quite the opposite -- but simply because he was young when Hitler was in power; in looking at Hitler, the slaughterer of 6 million Jews, the man who started a war that claimed 54 million lives, he was reminded of his youth.

I have a similar reaction to Ronald Reagan. I'm not in any way comparing the 40th president to Hitler; I think Reagan was fundamentally a good man, whereas Hitler was fundamentally evil. It's just that Reagan, whose politics I actively disliked, was in the White House when I was in my 20s. When I think of Reagan, the president who started the unraveling of the New Deal and the Great Society, who left behind a massive national debt and a bloated military, who presided over the Iran-Contra scandal, I can't help but think of my "salad days." I had a great time, for the most part, in the 1980s, and that era, naturally, looks gauzier and more golden the further I get from it. President Reagan, as perverse as it sounds, is an indelible part of those fond memories.

But it's a little more complex than that. Reagan, you see, reminded me of my father. While they weren't exactly of the same generation -- my Dad was 15 years younger -- they more or less held the same values, had the same party affiliation, projected the same sense of firmness and certainty; hell, they even parted their hair in the same way. They saw life through the same prism -- or at any rate I think they did.

That's not to say they had similar personalities. My Dad, a scientific type, was a detail man, analytical; Reagan, the great delegator, was neither. His legendary inattention, his reliance on 3-by-5 cards to get him through cabinet meetings, his frequent misstatements, his lack of depth, of basic knowledge -- none of that was like my Dad. But the fact that they are paired in my mind forces me to admit that, despite his glaring shortcomings, Reagan achieved what few presidents have: iconic status. He was a bad movie actor but a consummate political one, and his timing was perfect. A nation hammered by assassinations, by Vietnam, by Watergate, suddenly was led by a figure unsullied by all that simply because he'd cut his teeth in another, better, time. The youthful optimism he radiated, the traditional virtues he projected, all spoke to a bygone era, my father's era. Reagan was about nothing if not nostalgia.

Which explains why the current occupant of the White House, a Reagan wannabe if there ever was one, simply doesn't pack the same punch. George W. Bush has a good populist touch, but he's incapable of moving people with his oratory, and he doesn't really symbolize anything beyond dumb luck. He's just a child of privilege who overcame a drinking problem and became, first, governor of Texas, and then president of the United States, because his old man had connections. Not exactly stirring -- certainly not the way Reagan's rise from the son of a Midwestern shoe store manager and alcoholic to the most powerful man in the world is stirring. Even though, as president, he was always playing a role, and even though he was a product of Hollywood, he was authentic -- or seemed that way -- because of where he came from.

Reagan had one other thing in common with my Dad, and maybe this is why, when I learned Sunday he'd died, I felt, more than anything else, empathy for his wife, whom I never really cared for as First Lady. My Dad went through the long, terrible and sad decline of Alzheimer's, just like Reagan. And, like Reagan, it destroyed his mind and personality well before it killed his body.

I know what President Reagan was like at the end -- believe me, I can see it. So to everything else that complicates my feelings about him, let me add one more thing: pity.



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