Death of a Salesman

Ronald Reagan, 1911–2004

He should have died alone—a long, long time ago. But oh, no, not him: outliving his century by four years, his presidency by 16, and his own mind by a decade, Hollywood legend Ronald Reagan was 93 when he went to rejoin his makers—Thomas Jefferson, Louis B. Mayer, Lew Wasserman, and Barry Goldwater, in that order—on Saturday. A noted fantasist, Reagan is perhaps best remembered for the eight years he spent believing he ruled an entirely fictional United States. To the old trouper's delight, this was a delusion shared by most of his compatriots, which is why his imaginary nation still subsumes ours to this day.

At his funeral, there will no doubt be buckets of false poetry, grievously misrepresenting the man—yes, even if Peggy Noonan shows up, doing her best to be Walt Whitman to his Abe: "When Star Wars Last in Gorbachev's Dooryard Bloom'd." Real poetry is something else again, and you'd be horribly mistaken to think the following suggestion is sarcastic. Please understand I love the place; my proposal is made in a sincere spirit of tribute to an enemy. I think that Reagan, like no other American, deserves the honor of being the first person ever embalmed at Disneyland.

In the true capital of his America, one-upping Lenin in death as he did in life, he could lie in a glass box before Sleeping Beauty's castle—midway between Frontierland and Tomorrowland, right where Main Street debouches onto Carnation™ Plaza. (Oh, you bet: I know my way around Walt's kingdom, and why don't you? Are you some kind of commie?) Picture his sleep. Can Napoléon at the Invalides top this? A hundred years from now, that famously hawk-nosed profile is illuminated by the Electric Parade. Tomorrow's children gaze in awe as Tinkerbell slides down to kiss it, understanding that here lies the man who saved them from the rest of the world's great, killing Something-or-Other: doubt.

At a Conservative Party meeting in New York, 1975.
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
At a Conservative Party meeting in New York, 1975.

Ronald Reagan is the man who destroyed America's sense of reality—a paltry target, all in all, given our predilections. It only took an actor: the real successor to John Wilkes Booth. In our bones, we had always been this sort of bullshit-craving country anyhow, founded on abstractions: not land (somebody else's), not people (Red Rover, Red Rover, send Emma Lazarus right over), not even shared history (nostalgia isn't the same thing, and try pulling that Civil War Shinola anywhere west of the Rio Grande). Just monumental words and wordy monuments, with two convenient oceans between them and circumstance; from Nat Turner's status as three-fifths of a man—even though we ended up hanging all of him—to Reagan's child Lynndie England (b. 1983, the year we invaded Grenada and lost 241 Marines in Lebanon), any shortfall could be blamed on something lost in translation. But it was Reagan, whose most profound Freudian slip was the immortal "Facts are stupid things," who beguiled us into living in the theme park full-time, and so much for the Declaration of Independence's prattle about "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind"—actually the only time we ever expressed much concern for those. Since his 1980 opponent, Jimmy Carter, was about the sorriest embodiment of the reality principle imaginable—Three's Company's Mr. Roper on the world-historical stage—facts didn't have a prayer.

Starting with the way he broke the air-traffic controllers' strike in 1981, an augury of things to come from which the labor movement never recovered, Reagan certainly demolished the American left—what passes for the left, anyway. Since repeating "what passes for the left" strikes me as tiresome, I'll abbreviate it: WPFL. As you may recall, under veteran station manager Jesse Jackson, WPFL switched to an oldies format soon after the Great Communicator took office, and has remained too much on the defensive to come up with a new songlist since. Instead, in one of the great through-the-looking-glass paradoxes of Reaganism, "progressives" have become, in practical terms, reactionaries—cluckingly trying to protect this or that milestone (equal opportunity, Roe v. Wade), against a right wing that's singing "If I Had a Hammer—Oh, Wait: I Do." Meanwhile, so-called conservatives have been on a quarter-century radical spree, zestily pursuing their own version of "If it feels good, do it." From inside-trader Michael Milken to Oliver "What Constitution?" North, the worst disgrace to a Marine Corps uniform since Lee Harvey Oswald hung his up, to describe the Reagan era as any sort of rebuke to permissiveness is pure folly.

Even so, what most WPFL subscribers probably remain too hidebound to see—much less acknowledge—is that, as a cultural construct, Reaganism had beauty. Even if you knew better, it was seductive. The best description, or possibly just evidence, I know is the oddly forgotten Talking Heads song "Road to Nowhere," from 1985's Americana-flavored Little Creatures. A hymn that evolves into a march tune and then a full-on cattle drive, complete with "Hah!"s and get-along-little-doggie percussion, it's one of David Byrne's most insinuatingly phrased preacher rips, with imagery swiped straight from the Gipper himself: "There's a city in my mind/Come along and take that ride/And it's all right." Even as the odyssey the listener is being asked to sign up for turns flagrantly nuts—"Maybe you wonder where you are/I don't care"—the song's eerily dissociated exuberance inveigles you; you still want to join. If it's an anti-Reagan song at all—and with Byrne, who ever knows?—it's anti-Reagan in the same sense that "Heroin" is anti-shooting up.

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