Das Rongold

Reagan's funeral as a Wagnerian opera. Plus: Eminem as censor

New York Times headlines are an obsession for me. I savor every gradation of placement and size. How many columns, how many decks, roman or ital? By this standard, Saturday's front page treated Ronald Reagan's funeral respectfully, with a four-column, one-line, italic header. It was a subtle reminder that Friday had been a slow news day.

But on TV, Reagan's farewell appearance was a singular (week-long) sensation. When the encomiums to Ron were spent, Grieving Nancy kept the story going, while the body's odyssey from Cali to D.C. and back made this a show with several acts. It had all the hallmarks of a reality miniseries, except for one thing: It was on every station.

And every other piece of news was pulled into the funeral's magnetic orb. Ray Charles's death was dealt with by working his rendition of "God Bless America" into the soundtrack. That was a deeply ironic flourish in an almost lily-white—and for that matter, masculine—occasion. Women may have a place on the battlefield, but they can't be trusted to carry the Great One's coffin or handle the flag that drapes it. Manly shoulders must bear him to his rest. (Mohammed Atta, who stipulated in his will that no women attend his funeral, would have understood.)

Because the networks had so long to plan for this production, and because Nancy is a master dramaturge, this was the most precisely mounted news event in modern times. Each gesture was minutely choreographed, every tear strategically placed. Bush Sr.'s sniffling eulogy may have belied his frequent references to Reagan's policies as "voodoo economics," but it won him top billing on ABC's evening news, over his son's remarks. The interment in California fit perfectly into a two-hour prime-time slot. Invisible mics picked up every sigh and whisper, including Nancy's. The only serendipity was provided by the incessant clicking of cameras, those cicadas of hyper-reality.

It hardly helped W.'s Gipper-appropriation campaign when Ron Reagan Jr.'s graveside speech included a jabbing reference to certain politicians who wear their religion on their sleeve for political gain. But even that was part of the saga, along with subplots involving Margaret Thatcher's health, Mikhail Gorbachev's graciousness, and Thabo Mbeki's willingness to forgive Reagan's support for apartheid. As former greats gathered in the cathedral, viewers could bask in one of the great pleasures of such spectacles by sitting back and remarking, "My, he looks terribly old."

The passage of time, the promise of salvation, the permanence of flag and country (as represented by perfectly appointed military men)—all these themes unfolded over five stately days to the accompaniment of patriotic hymns and plangent cellos. It was as close as this generation of Americans can get to the catharsis Germans experience when they sit through four evenings of Richard Wagner's psyche-seizing Ring cycle.

Of course, we don't have a national opera. We have national unity pageants, and this was one for the Infotainment Hall of Fame. It fused the values of politics and showbiz, just as Reagan had. He was our first postmodern president, and proof of George Burns's observation: "The secret of acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."


Post-Crypt

It's hard to find an alternative to this celebration among the more than 5 million Reagan-related websites listed on Google. But the stuff of real dissent is out there. You might visit Gay City News to read Larry Kramer's recollection of Ron's reign, as told to Joe Dignan. Or check out The Black Commentator for Tim Wise's trenchant essay, "Reagan—the Great White Redeemer." It puts the Gipper right where he belongs: in the tradition of Southern Redemptionism, the movement that established segregation after Reconstruction was reversed. The Black Commentator is a must-read for surfers who aren't satisfied by the flaming and fronting that pass as insight.

Meanwhile, in the mainstream, there was some dissent from the paeans to Reaganomics, such as Paul Krugman's oddly hedged column in Friday's Times (his stint as a Reagan adviser may have checked his passion) and William Greider's more visceral piece in The Nation. But no talking head got angry. No one dared to describe Reagan's policies as racist. There was no footage of shuttered child care centers, and no evidence of his indifference to AIDS. The Economist's cover line—"The Man Who Beat Communism"—summed up the official story. How Soviet is that!


Slim Shady, Censor

"Lyrical Judge Praises Eminem in Lyrics Fight": That was how the Times saw the ruling last week that held The Sourcein contempt for failing to follow a previous order involving the removal from its website of certain lyrics by Marshall B. Mathers III. According to The Source, the lyrics go back to 1993, not to Em's adolescence in the '80s, as he has claimed. Back then, he felt free to vent on African American women—as in "black girls are bitches." Eminem has acknowledged writing that rap, attributing it to "anger, stupidity, and frustration when I was a teenager." At least he didn't blame his mom.

But black women weren't Mathers's only targets, according to Source CEO David Mays. In one song alluded to in the magazine, Mays says, "he called black people 'spear chuckers,' 'porch monkeys,' and such." In its February issue, The Source printed several pieces pointing to Eminem's prior racist tendencies. The lyrics were meant to illustrate that thesis. The law usually allows a publication to reproduce a work being commented on, but in this case the judge held to a very narrow definition of fair use, limiting The Sourceto releasing only 20 seconds of the songs in question.

All the judge saw was the danger that publishing Eminem's early musings would damage his credibility as a white artist working in a black form. That's not unlike the protectiveness many white critics extend to Eminem in refusing to face his biases. By censoring the evidence of hardcore bigotry, Eminem can prevent a true reckoning with the meaning of his success. That's why The Source is planning to appeal the judge's ruling. "It's about the media's right to report on something the public needs to know about," Mays says.

Dennis Dennehy, a spokesman for Eminem, had no comment.


Deconstructions: rgoldstein@villagevoice.com

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