Listening to, watching and reading the tidal wave of elegiac gushings occasioned by the death of former President Ronald Reagan was a peculiar experience for me. I mean, I had no idea who it was that they were all gushing about. It certainly wasn't the man I remembered.
I suppose it's understandable that right-leaning commentators like Linda Chavez or the Tribune's local luminary Jeffrey Gardner would want to wax rhapsodic about someone who did so much to influence their careers and who made it socially acceptable in this country again to be greedy, self centered and totally nonaltruistic. They owed him.
What I haven't been able to puzzle out, however, is the mushy sentimentalism about Reagan that was dished out by so many ostensibly centrist or even Democratic columnists and talking heads. There's some truly pathetic, even dangerous, drivel being slung about on the topic.
Boiled down to its essence, this line of reasoning seems to say: “Sure, he was a disaster deficit wise, and yes, his policies did bring pain, misery and death to millions of Third World people around the globe, and admittedly he cut this nation's social and civil rights safety nets into not much more than a pile of shreddings, but hey, you got to give him credit: he made us glad to be Americans again!”
No, no, no! All this talk about the glory days when Ronnie brought an end to the evil empire, Americans stopped having to conserve petroleum, and when we didn't have to feel guilty about turning our backs on the homeless, the mentally ill or the elderly was not really about Reagan. It was actually about George W. Bush and the need to keep him around for another four years.
And it appears to have actually deceived some people. At least short term, W., through the simple expedient of doing nothing but standing in Reagan's funeral cortege, has bounced back in the polls. Whereas the week before Reagan's memorial service Kerry had inched ahead in the sampling, now the Republican is back in front. Not by a lot, but enough.
The American public apparently doesn't like to feel guilty, doesn't like to apologize, doesn't like to admit it's made a few mistakes. So our chest thumping mea culpas over the Abu Ghraib scandals can be put behind us. Our period of contrition is over. The Occupation of Iraq is relegated once more to page A-12—back with the other bad news stories about West Nile virus, Congo massacres and serial murders.
You will once more look in vain through entire weeks of newspapers in this city without seeing the cumulative totals of Americans killed and seriously wounded during Mr. Bush's war. Those data, just yesterday so compelling, are now banished to some obscure website where the historians and the policy wonks can nose them out but where the depressing picture they paint will not cause even tiny grey clouds to cross our sunny national countenance.
This, it seems to me, is the true legacy of Ronald Reagan, even more than the added millions of homeless people on our streets, the slaughtered Nicaraguans, Kurds and Salvadorans and the billions of taxpayer dollars wasted on completely ludicrous weaponry that he was responsible for.
His truest legacy is that he, more than anyone before him in our history (at least since P.T. Barnum), demonstrated that Americans care far more for feeling good about ourselves than we do about doing difficult, good deeds. Reagan was popular (still is popular) precisely because he never hesitated to engage in, never even had qualms about, pandering to the American public's need to think well of itself. He just kept on telling us exactly what we wanted to hear ... whatever the contradictory facts.
Most presidents in our history have, at some juncture, spoken about sacrifice, selflessness, belt-tightening. Reagan never succumbed to that temptation. He just kept dishing out the Hollywood version of our history, the romantic, gallant, brave little nation version.
To understand what Reagan did for this country, listen to Dubya at the memorial service talking about "Reagan's dedicated service to the nation during World War II." I don't think President Bush forgot that Reagan wasn't actually in the armed forces during that war. His point stands: by acting in movies about soldiers, sailors and flyboys, Reagan made us feel proud.
That's the Reagan heritage: fake it. We all appreciate someone who makes us smile. We all cherish being told our shoulders are nice and square. We all want to feel good about what we're doing. Besides, those cosmetic gestures are a heck of a lot easier to pull off than actually engaging in doing good in the world.
Dubya knows very well the Reagan lesson. The issue in this election will be whether John Kerry can figure out how to tell the truth about what faces us, without making us feel guilty. We simply won't vote in this country for any candidates who make us feel guilty.
That's a fine line for Kerry to walk. Challenge us, yet leave our self respect intact. If he can master that subtle maneuver, he will win on Nov. 2. If he doesn't, we get Bush for another four years. And I don't know about you, but ain't no way I'll feel good about myself then.