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.
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.
It helped that, just like a play, nearly all the worst stuff happened discreetly offstage, as far as most of the American public was concerned—like the thousands who died of AIDS on his watch or the 20,000 casualties in the Nicaraguan civil war Reagan promoted, illegally, when Congress tried to thwart him. I can still remember my patriotic thrill when he pronounced the thuggish Contras “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers”; so far as I know, George Washington never went in for mortaring hospitals, but that may only be because he didn’t have mortars.
Sure, the Iran-Contra scandal was a worse threat to American democracy than Watergate—short-circuiting our whole system of government, as opposed to diddling an election that was a lock anyway. But nobody was about to impeach smiling Ron over it, partly because nobody really understood how it worked. Something people did understand, but noticeably couldn’t get outraged about—for many go-getting American psychos, it was part of the turn-on—was the callousness that the Reagan administration’s social Darwinism urged all good citizens to see as a virtue; even allowing that Democratic social programs hadn’t fixed the inner cities’ problems, why it was either more humane or more sensible to let them rot was never explained. But after all, if urban African Americans wanted to escape gangs, poverty, and despair, there was always the army.
At the core of the Reagan legend is the mantra that his presidency made America feel good about itself again—an interesting claim for Republicans to make, since it sounds like just the sort of self-esteem therapy they snort at when say, first-graders are the beneficiaries. Not entirely inappropriately, the picture it conjures up is of a commander in chief playing Julie Andrews as the governess in The Sound of Music: “You’ve brought music back into the house, Ron.” In individual cases, bucking up a patient’s spirits when his or her material situation isn’t improving—or is, in fact, deteriorating, as ours was from infrastructure to multitrillion-dollar deficitis to yawning disparities between rich and poor—is usually accomplished with drugs; Reagan was one. In a wonderful Herblock cartoon from 1986, a headline reporting that the U.S. has just become the world’s leading debtor nation is greeted by hordes of celebrating Americans all holding up proud forefingers: “We’re number one!”
Mystique he undeniably had. No other chief executive has been so at ease with his own preposterousness, baffling everyone who ever tried to analyze him. The formidable Garry Wills wrestled the enigma in Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, and emerged never having laid a glove on the man; indeed, Wills has never been the same since. Nixon is comprehensible; Reagan is not. He was affable but remote, folksy but not human, so completely the actor that his fraudulence was his integrity; unlike poor Nixon, who couldn’t ask for the time without raising the suspicion that he meant to steal your watch, Reagan was at his most convincing and disarmingly sincere when he was spouting transparent balderdash. Up to a point, anyhow—in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks tells a remarkable story about watching a presidential speech in a roomful of people with severe aphasia, a condition that impairs or destroys understanding of verbal content but leaves its victims preternaturally alert to the authenticity of facial expressions, mannerisms, and tone. Every solemn, ringingly earnest sentence out of Reagan’s mouth had the patients rolling on the floor laughing.
Of course, it’s possible that Sacks could have revisited the lounge a decade later and witnessed an identical reaction to a Clinton speech. But Reagan’s elusiveness unnerved even admirers. Trying to pin down her ex-boss’s disconcerting effect in What I Saw at the Revolution, his adoring speechwriter Noonan came up with a distinctly creepy comparison—to the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, all bland good will and upbeat talk that somehow add up to unfeeling hogwash. Then again, Noonan has more than a little Blanche DuBois in her, which explains why her later encomiums to her great captain have gotten as hysterical as Blanche sending S.O.S. telegrams to Mr. Shep Huntleigh—and getting an answer, even though he’s imaginary.
If Blanche Noonan ever worries about the posthumous rep of the man who mistook his country for a hat, though, she needn’t. Overseen by Grover Norquist, the Reagan Legacy Project has had all this well in hand for years. Besides working to stick Reagan’s name on as many buildings, streets, ships, and mountains as possible, the organization’s goals include carving his face on Mount Rushmore and putting his face on the dime. Even George Will huffed at “trying to plaster Reagan’s name all over the country the way Lenin was plastered over Eastern Europe, Mao over China and Saddam Hussein all over Iraq.” Norquist’s basically Stalinist propaganda technique—enough memorials, and it could take a century to unconvince future generations that this was a great man—is sure some way to honor the most famous anti-Communist of all time. But to be fair, Reagan only objected to the “Workers of the world, unite” part, not the cult of personality.
No doubt, it will work, too. I lived in Hollywood in the ’80s, and back then, the legend was that Reagan’s star needed the most upkeep on the Walk of Fame: It was constantly being defaced by vomit and urine. (Even or especially in Hollywood, it’s possible to feel far from Disneyland.) But it’s hard to pee on Mount Rushmore; you’ll only end up wetting your own face. So watch it, kids. Static crackle, signal fainter: This is WPFL, signing off. If you ask me, the best that can be said for Ronald Reagan is that, if George W. Bush gets re-elected, we may yet end up missing him.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 1, 2004