portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary united states

legacies | media criticism

What Ronnie Meant to Me: A Dissenter’s View of an American Moment

The death of former president Reagan occurred during an election year and a costly military intervention in the Middle East. It has caused many to recall a bygone era that has been overshadowed by a seemingly more perilous and confusing political climate. The following essay is a reflection--albeit a highly personal one--on those times, and an attempt to come to terms with the overall meaning behind the image.
The death and burial of Ronald Reagan heralded a time of reckoning for many Americans, but particularly for those of us who regard ourselves as contemporary social critics. Reagan, as both governor and president, was the foil and lynchpin for decades of indignant commentary, exasperation and bile, especially when faced with the credulous acceptance or outright dedication of his many followers and retainers. What made his presence so challenging was that by the end of his presidency, his mythical influence—as economic genius, military hero and champion of success—had become so imbued in popular perceptions of American politics that attempts at dissent had to be removed altogether from the context of "leftism" or even "leftist social criticism" and became simply a matter of reiterating and defending historical fact. Especially dangerous was the implied sense that any opposition to Reagan-era policies was simply the residue of a dilapidated liberalism—in effect, that liberals are either losers, or apologists for losers.
In personal terms, Reagan's passing caused me to recall one vague life moment in 1988 in which I, as a beleaguered middle school student who had momentarily embraced Vietnam-era radicalism as a means of social revenge, flashed a peace sign to a friend at the other end of the hallway, a two- fingered salute of sorts which embodied, at least in my vulnerable adolescent mind, a rejection of an era of gloried violence (Rambo), shallowness (Just Say No) and materialism () presided over by its smug steward, Ronald Reagan. As if in conforming to the ethos of the times, those who observed my gesture from nearby—a neatly dressed couple of future businesspeople—looked upon my appropriated act of late-yippie defiance with derision and disgust.
If all forms of idealism tend to generate absolutes, then the mythic American narrative that Reagan weaved in public address is no exception. If the coterie of interest groups that surrounded his first Administration (the supply-siders, the Moral Majority, the neo-Cold warriors) would later find him a less-than satisfying figurehead for their cause, then the average Joe ideologue was certainly satiated. A cowboy who hailed not from cattle country but from Illinois, a poor boy who came from well-to-do parents, a combat veteran who recalled films about war as moral parables. As a result, there became no distinction between Reagan the man and Reagan the symbol. To a restless and emotionally needy public, the desire to believe and belong spawned history redefined in stark, black-and-white terms, like the Special Forces offspring who once informed my long-haired self that I "wouldn't go fight in the Vietnam War" because "the times-they-are-a-changin'", but couldn't recognize that the anti-war movement of the 1960's was also composed of the soldiers who had served in it.
One might comment that an unexpected aspect of the televised funeral service and accompanying ritual was the apparent, if not truly open attempt to make it a colloquial event—i.e., one devoid of the ideological or partisan pretenses which defined Reagan's time in office and simply one directed at the task of laying to rest an American president in a manner which all people—of whatever age, persuasion or nationality—could identify with. Such was exemplified by the citizens from all walks of life who stood before the casket in Simi Valley, and the presence of figures such as Carter, Clinton and Gorbachev at the Washington Memorial service. Not a few of the many policymakers who once railed against the Reagan Doctrine in both foreign and domestic affairs could now speak only of his optimism, his vision, and his dedication to public life. However, if an effort at reconciliation was truly the intention of the event's sponsors, then the eulogies delivered by Dick Cheney and Margaret Thatcher clearly failed at this task. Thatcher's regal (prerecorded) speech in particular recalled the sanitary, Cold War-lite of the 1980's, in which Communism was fought bloodlessly with a combination of inspired rhetoric and inflated defense budgets. (Presumably, the Contras never killed anyone.) This dramatization openly denied the true history of American anti-Communism—of which Reagan was a steadfast and dedicated participant—of treachery, deceit and ruin of many thousands of innocent lives, of unspoken support for injustices committed by regimes that in moral terms was in no way distinct from the repression perpetrated under the Soviet system and its various imitators.
Perhaps in the end, what the death of Reagan really offers is a rare opportunity afforded by the mass recollection of the passage of time: the chance to move on. It gives one cause if not to forgive, then to take a breath of fresh air, even to shed a tear, perhaps not for the man himself, but for the time spent, for the battles won or lost, for those who suffered for their difference of opinion either socially or in public life. As the sun set on an era, it's as if Ronnie himself were able to say, "The war's over son... throw down your rifle and limp home."