As most of my readers are undoubtedly aware, former President Ronald Reagan died this weekend at the age of 93. He was my second least-favorite president since World War II and I think he was a disaster as our country's leader, but I've always had the impression that he meant well and had good intentions. That's more than you can say about other recent presidents.
My own memories of Reagan are fairly hazy. The 1981 attempt on Reagan's life is the first historical event I can remember (I turned five the next month); I'd been misbehaving that afternoon, if I recall correctly, and I was surprised to see just how shaken my mother was when she heard that Reagan had been shot. I can remember saying something along the lines of "Why are you so upset? I thought you didn't like him!", to which she replied, "I voted against him, but I didn't want him killed!" That's not a bad lesson in democracy (and basic human decency) for your average four-year-old... Three years later, I went to bed on election night convinced that Walter Mondale was going to be the next president of the U.S. (he sounded really confident when he appeared on the news, after all!), and was shocked the next morning to hear that Reagan had won again. I can remember Reagan's speech after the Challenger disaster in 1986, and I have a lot of memories of the 1988 election, but to me, Reagan will always be a distant, avuncular, and sometimes even sinister figure from my past.
What's the best way to remember a figure like this? There's a part of me (as my few long-term readers may remember) that delights in the nasty obituary. Hunter Thompson's 1994 obituary of Richard Nixon, for example, is a small masterpiece, and its opening paragraphs always make me smile:
Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing -- a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that "I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."
I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.
Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you."
Some of the best comments on the dead transcend the glories of the nasty obituary by focusing not just on the life of the deceased, but on its meaning and on the way it will be remembered. Scott McLemee, for example, has the following to say on his blog:
Somebody once said: "I always hope that Kenny Rogers is in good health, because when he dies they're gonna play his songs on the radio all day long."
And in much that spirit of loathing at the prospect of the inevitable forced march through certain memories -- a public celebration of things better off buried in an unmarked spot, on a moonless night -- I have, for some years now, dreaded the news of Ronald Reagan's passing.
This morning, a thought came to mind -- the aftermath of digesting as much of last night's Sixty Minutes as we could stand. (Switched it off halfway through; the gorge becoming buoyant at hearing they were about to do a segment on the man's irrepressible sense of humor.) To whit: Let nobody say that liberalism has a monopoly on the therapeutic conception of politics. "He changed America by making us feel good about ourselves."
What a vacuously privatized notion of leadership (let alone of politics or the common good). Jimmy Carter got no end of grief for having read Christopher Lasch and coming forth with that bit about the nation's "malaise." But the candidate who "lifted" that malaise did so only by giving the culture of narcissism a happy pill.
Or as Steven Shapiro puts it at his always-interesting site The Pinocchio Theory, the Great Communicator "created an ugly social and cultural climate in America, one that is still with us today: a climate of cynicism, greed, selfishness, bigotry, frat-boy self-congratulatory boorishness, and blame-the-victim disdain for 'losers' and the weak, all buttressed by a willfully ignorant, proudly vapid, feel-good-at-all-costs Pollyanna-ism."
That about covers it. Could be worse, I guess. How is Kenny Rogers feeling, these days?
Remembrances of the dead can serve another useful purpose: reminding us of little-remembered facts about the deceased. Terry Teachout's blog, for instance, has linked to a past entry on Reagan that described him as "the most prolific presidential correspondent of modern times." At Cliopatria, Hugo Schwyzer remarks on Reagan's role in defeating a 1978 anti-gay initiative on the California ballot. Posts like this can complicate our understanding of past figures, without attempting an overall assessment of their lives.
What bothers me most about the majority of obituaries and tributes is that they transform the recently living into figures bereft of liveliness and personality. Too many obituaries are lists of facts and anecdotes that never capture the personality or significance of the deceased; too many tributes try to capture a life's meaning and instead repeat a bunch of cliches and meaningless generalities. The occasional obituary is more successful, of course--and I think the British do a better job remembering the deadthan we do--but I look forward to the day when our newspapers pay as much attention to their obituaries as they do to their sports coverage.
Update: Christopher Hitchens has now published his own tribute to Reagan.
One could go on. I only saw him once up close, which happened to be when he got a question he didn't like. Was it true that his staff in the 1980 debates had stolen President Carter's briefing book? (They had.) The famously genial grin turned into a rictus of senile fury: I was looking at a cruel and stupid lizard. His reply was that maybe his staff had, and maybe they hadn't, but what about the leak of the Pentagon Papers? Thus, a secret theft of presidential documents was equated with the public disclosure of needful information. This was a man never short of a cheap jibe or the sort of falsehood that would, however laughable, buy him some time.
The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn't like him all that much. He met his second wife—the one that you remember—because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.
Posted by Ed at June 7, 2004 02:26 PM