June 6, 2004
Ronald Reagan had the birth of a deity. Within 20 minutes of his inauguration, Iran freed the hostages that wimpy Jimmy Carter had been unable to rescue. I was 11 years old at the time and impressed but baffled. How had he done it?
No one seemed to know or very much care. Apparently the Iranians had wanted to make a statement about how much they disliked Carter, and we didn’t want to dwell on the motivations of Iranians. The important thing was that the hostages were finally coming home to heroes’ welcomes. At last we’d rescue some trees from yellow ribbons. The kids at my school who had sung “Bomb Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” at the talent show would have to get a new song. It was Morning in America, and we needed to put our childhoods behind us. I’d be in high school soon, and Oliver North would come warn my history class about the danger of communism in Nicaragua.
Reagan was immortal. When he was shot, the television showed it to us and told us about it thousands of times. Reagan cheerfully joked with the doctors and bounced right back. The country did not suffer during his brief absence, because he was not absent from his essential function as an encouraging personality. Nor did later signs of senility diminish his role.
Today, as the media pours out its tributes, as the Washington Post lavishes over 10,000 words, as Senator John Kerry praises good old Ronnie to the skies, much of the commentary is about personality, almost all of it is laudatory, and I have been unable to find one mention of hostages in Iran.
We have forgotten Reagan’s birth and will soon forget his death as well. He will become an eternal brave and smiling president: dentures and a cowboy hat hovering over the Potomac like a Cheshire cat. His presence will be unavoidable. Already if anyone asks me the name of a building or highway or train station and I don’t know it, I encourage them to wait a little while and then expect it to be called Reagan. Most things are named or renamed Reagan these days, at least in Washington.
Reagan is the source of a number of trends in American politics. Through the late 1970s, wages and working conditions were improving for ordinary Americans. From the day Reagan fired the air traffic controllers through eight years of his tax cutting and military spending, it became clear that a divide would be opened up between the rich and the rest of us, that public education and care for our young, old, and ill would be slashed in the name of militarism, and that