Our Myopic Beeblebrox: Plausible Selective Memories
Pabst Blue Ribbon, ketchup, a Black Panther in Cuba, myopia, Pat Brown and Sci-Fi classics: an eclectic and selective obituary of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th President of the United States of America.
09 JUNE 2004
Ronald Reagan is dead.
Don't panic. A story or two may help.
Catsup. Ketchup may be a vegetable, but not in Havana. There is no American ketchup on this island. There is an embargo. We are engaged in an economic embargo against the island nation of Cuba. We want regime change and we've wanted it since Fidel deposed Batista and nationalized American assets and properties.
1997. Cuba. My traveling companions and I had the honor of meeting the Black Panther, activist, convicted cop killer, and political dissident, Asata Shakur. Dinner consisted of organic vegetarian courses, sprinkled with talk of what life was like for us in our respective countries.
Dessert produced generous helpings of her life narrative: the 60s and 70s that transformed her from Joanne Chesimard to Asata Shakur; how she became a Black Panther; her account of what occurred on the Jersey turnpike on May 2, 1973; the subsequent trial; her imprisonment and jailbreak in 1979; and her life in exile.
Periodically during our conversation, she would take off her glasses and just hold them out in front of her. Completely lacking an insight or question of great depth, I asked why she kept doing this. It helps when speaking in front of groups. She was so nearsighted, she explained, that whenever she removed her glasses things in front of her would go blurry. Some things are emotionally difficult to recount. Removing her glasses focused her thoughts and aided her memory.
I too suffer from nearsighted vision, and now sometimes I'll remove my glasses and remember Asata focusing her memory.
Nearsightedness means we can't see far. Or, more precisely, myopia (from the Greek myein, meaning 'shut' and ops meaning 'eye') causes distant objects to appear out of focus.
1970s. Chicago's South Suburbs. After having been in Argentina for months and months working on the construction of a factory, my father returned home. Vividly, I remember his frustrating (and frustrated) attempts to teach me to ride a bike: the purple banana seat, Easy Rider handlebars, the garage door open on a summer day, the radio tuned to WGN when the Cub's Champ Summers hit a go ahead homer... and my first taste of Pabst Blue Ribbon's foamy head. It was then that I wanted to look just like my dad: I wanted to wear glasses.
1984. Watsonville to Malibu. 400 miles in 4 days. I took my nearsightedness on a tour of Highway 1 and decided to bicycle the California coast.
Three and a half years earlier in a landslide victory, the United States of America voted Ronald Wilson Reagan its 40th president -and 14 years before that California elected him Governor. He was the first actor to hold this office!
1959. Sacramento, California. Riddle me this. What man's inaugural address as Governor included these words?
"Where democracy lives, free people speak in strong voices... We
begin today the solemn duty and high privilege of translating that
vision into public policy and into law."
No. It was not Ronald Reagan.
It was Pat Brown, the man Reagan would succeed in the Governor's mansion.
Although, as a gubernatorial candidate in 1966 the Los Angeles Times did quote Reagan as saying, "I would have voted against the Civil Rights Act."
Months earlier he said something (dis)similar, "I favor the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it must be enforced at the point of a bayonet, if necessary." He said things such as these in a state that was -at the time- overwhelmingly Democratic... following the Watts Riots... AND he still won.
This was the power of the -visually but not politically- myopic Ronald Wilson Reagan. Image over substance: it is not what you do, it's what you say you did; it is not what is said, but how you say it; and if none of this works, there is always plausible denial.
Redbaiting and red outing. In the 1940s, while serving as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan was called to testify before HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) with the expectation that he would provide the names of those in Hollywood who were members of the Communist Party or some other Red endeavor. Publicly, he did the honorable thing and refused to name names. But as the New York Times reported more recently:
"When he was called before the House Un-American Activities
Committee in 1947 to testify about Communist influence in the movie
industry, Mr. Reagan refused to name names before the committee.
But the historian Gary Wills said the Federal Bureau of Investigation
file on Mr. Reagan that was later released disclosed that he had
named people in secret."
If only Eli Kazan had thought of such a scheme, perhaps he too could have been a contender for political office instead of generally loathed.
1978. When Douglas Adams first wrote the classic BBC radio play The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy I doubt if he imagined that his creation would become a best selling series of books, a video game, a TV series, a stage play and a Hollywood feature film -to be. Nor did he imagine, I suppose, that Zaphod Beeblebrox might one day offer a template for a not-so fictional world leader.
With two heads, Beeblebrox had neither screwed on especially tight; but he was an accomplished con man. Inventor of a drink called the 'pan galactic gargleblaster', he was also part-time Galactic President.
"It was for the sake of this day that he had first decided to run for the
Presidency, a decision which had sent waves of astonishment throughout
the Imperial Galaxy -Zaphod Beeblebrox? President? Not the Zaphod
Beeblebrox? Not the President? Many had seen it as a clinching proof
that the whole of known creation had finally gone bananas."
It couldn't be just any jellybean offered from Reagan's desk in the Oval Office. It had to be Jelly Belly.
"Only six people in the Galaxy knew that the job of the Galactic
President was not to wield power but to attract attention away from it."
A figurehead. An actor. A front man. The Great Communicator.
Accused by some of micromanaging, the younger Jimmy Carter looked physically drained after his four years in the White House. How did the much older Reagan, who served twice as long in office, appear so vibrant when he departed in 1988?
Naps. Primates. Bedtime for Bonzo.
Once asked by Fortune magazine to describe his management style, Reagan replied:
"Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority,
and don't interfere."
James Watt. Oliver North. Richard Secord. Robert McFarlane. John Poindextor. Caspar Weinberger. Iran Contra.
Thanks to David Corn's The Nation article, "66 Things to Think About When Flying Into Reagan National Airport," all I need do is pick a paragraph to jar my memory.
"Getting cozy with Argentine fascist generals, tax credits for segregated
schools, disinformation campaigns, 'homeless by choice', Manuel
Noriega, falling wages, the HUD scandal, air raids on Libya, 'constructive engagement' with apartheid South Africa, United States Information
Agency blacklists of liberal speakers, attacks on OSHA and workplace
safety, the invasion of Grenada, assassination manuals, Nancy's
Memory. And if that doesn't work, plausible selective memory because, "Facts are stupid things."
When Secretary of Education Ted Bell presented the President with the watershed report on the state of America's education system, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, Reagan accepted it but did little to implement policy to confront its findings. In his second term, he would replace Bell with a man much less likely to blind him, William Bennett.
The Education President offered us proposals for tuition tax credits, private school vouchers and school prayer, but gave relatively little. And he actually proposed dismantling the entire Department of Education. A byproduct of 'big government', it was superfluous.
1981. Or maybe it was 1982. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports awards me a patch for doing all sorts of bizarre activities and exercises beyond the call of duty. I remember being able to balance myself on my toes and running in circles.
Thank you for the patch Mr. President. What about increasing Pell Grants for college?
No. If you wanted to live the American dream and go to college, you would have to do it the way the Gipper did. Work your way through. Be a lifeguard. It will make a man out of you!
It's not as though the majority of us (men and women) who went to college in the 80s and 90s were not going to work for our laundry/ beer money. It just would have been nice to work a little less and study a little more. It would have been nice not to be swamped in debts that made us immediately subservient to 'The Man' upon graduation. But that was probably the reasoning behind the lack of policy: not a smarter America, a more docile America.
Now Reagan is dead. He already has an airport and soon there will probably be a university named after him. Who said irony was dead?
What kind of world would it be if had truly been the Education President? If instead of annually increasing the budget deficit by over-investing in America's military, what if he had spent it on education? What if our country had become smarter instead of more deadly?
And why stop there? What if we were to make sincere efforts to feed people, improve health services, clothe them, honor them and foster their cultures rather than bombing any old wedding party our Apache Attack Helicopters came across?
Once after meeting with Reagan, the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev recounted an attempt by the president to rationalize the acrimony between the two countries:
"At our meeting in Geneva, the US President said that if the earth faced an
invasion by extraterrestrials, the United States and the Soviet Union would
join forces to repel such an invasion."
Why does the plot synopsis of The War of the Worlds or Independence Day need to come to fruition to make us come to our senses?
Reagan had a point, but he had the wrong film plots. We humans don't beat aliens through guile, cunning and sending the bad guys home in body bags. Here's the truth of the matter. We are much more like the people in the Sci-Fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. We would unite, but could we win?
We miss out on beautiful opportunities because we are too nearsighted and all too easily afraid of the unknown. Klaatu offers us peace, but no. We would rather go fifteen rounds with Gort. Damn it! Mr. President, Gort's gonna win 10 times out of 10. He's melting our tanks.
As best as I can remember, Gort was a metallic Cyclops who could shoot a laser from his one eye. Now that's a real SDI!
There is more gawk and run in us than shock and awe.
Our weapons are impotent and ultimately change little but topography. Well that's not exactly true, there are still a few thousand weapons out there that could significantly change the topography, demography and livability of the earth; but, fortunately, these are in the hands of only the wisest countries.
1959. Revolution? Speaking of the vision he had for California, Governor Pat Brown said the following:
"The essence of liberalism is a genuine concern and deep respect for all
the people. Not monuments or institutions or associations, but people. Not
one race, or one creed, or one nationality, but all the people. When people
come first and special privilege is scorned, government is truly liberal."
Mourning in America.
Ronald Reagan is dead.
From lifeguard to politician, he has done his work. Let him rest in peace. Let us not resurrect him to play Zaphod Beeblebrox. Sam Rockwell can handle it. And let us not keep his legacy alive by choosing myopic cowboys riding the coattails of our dearly departed. Call it liberalism. Call it conservatism. Call it anything that makes you feel comfortable; but let's skip a few naps, correct our vision and get down to the arduous work of restoring our nation's honor.
Adam Christopher Snow © 2004
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