Monday, June 14, 2004

Nobody that Tiny

I've been glad of the press coverage of the rites of Ronald Reagan's passing. President Reagan was a mysterious figure to me. But he captured the hearts of a large proportion of my countrymen, and I'll never really understand them if I don't understand their love for him.

He'd barely flickered across my consciousness before he ran for the presidency. He was known in my lefty academic circles as the man who, as governor of California, had taken the best educational system in the country, and in a few short years made it one of the worst. We disliked him, but we didn't take him very seriously. He was rather a joke, outside of California -- as Arnold Schwarzenegger is now. I remember being pleased when he got the Republican nomination. He was so ignorant and so far-right, I thought, that he would certainly bomb in a national election.

We wandered away from watching the election returns the night he was elected, silent and shell-shocked. He hadn't just won; he'd won big. Against a man whom I thought, and still think, was the best man to occupy the oval office in the 20th Century. I admired Jimmy Carter, though I thought he was a poor president. So who was this man, this joke from California, who had beaten him?

I never did find out who Ronald Reagan was. I found him distasteful, but I didn't loathe him. Maybe you never loathe anyone like you loathe your first political bete noire. Richard Nixon was the man I hated, deeply and enduringly. I've practiced a long time to soften that hatred. It hasn't been easy.

But I didn't hate Reagan. He gave me the creeps -- I certainly would never have left him alone in a room with my children -- but mostly I was just baffled by him. He'd make a really poor showing in a debate, and I'd find in the morning papers that he was considered to have won it. The famous Reagan charm was invisible to me; I just saw a bad actor, overdoing his lines. For me the Reagan years were surreal. I have never felt so alienated from America, not even during the Nixon years.

So I've listened closely to the NPR reports and retrospectives, hoping to understand this phenomenon. Trying to make that leap of imagination. I listen to the snippets of his speeches and try to imagine how I'd hear them if I thought he really believed what he was saying. I think I'm beginning to get a glimmering. And I think he really did believe what he was saying. Clinton (who I'm sure was just as baffling to the Right as Reagan was to me) helped when he referred to Reagan as exemplifying "the indomitable optimism of the American people." And it helped me a lot, trivial though it may seem, to learn that he was outraged when he found out that Nixon had paved the horse-trails at Camp David.

One evening at KCC Martha -- who has always been the person to ask, in pure humble curiosity, "Mommy, why is the Emperor wearing no clothes?" -- asked Lama Michael about how it can be that the Dalai Lama meets with someone like George W. Bush and comes away saying -- as he always does -- that he's a very good man, a very sincere man. You sometimes get the feeling that the Dalai Lama would have come away from meeting Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler saying the same thing.

Michael, who has been known to tell us that, to step out of the strait-jackets of our egos, we should try wearing polyester suits, and has advised us, knowing us mostly to be deep-dyed liberals, to go out and vote Republican for once, and try driving a big SUV around -- immediately confessed that this troubled him, too. After thinking about it for a while, he said that he thought the Dalai Lama could see a lot more than we could. That we make our political opponents into little caricatures, and freeze them as such in our minds. "But nobody is really that tiny," he said.

So I listened to Reagan talking in his hushed, intimate tones about the Shining City on the Hill, and I suddenly made the connection to a night, when I was a teenager, and I brought myself to tears picturing the secular paradise I was going to help build someday. "The City of Man," it would be called. Like all utopias, it needed just one founding condition: that everyone in it have pretty much the same prejudices, temperament, outlook and ambitions as me. And since my prejudices, temperament, outlook, and ambitions were clearly the right ones, why should that be hard?

I don't pretend to understand everything about Reagan and his appeal, but I think I opened the heart of it when I made that connection. And I found myself listening to Margaret Thatcher talking about his large-heartedness not with contempt, but with wistfulness. It's probably true. There was something large-hearted and magnanimous about him, just as there was about that ignorantly arrogant damp-eyed teenager, who dreamed about the City of Man.

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