Culture

Mrs. Reagan’s Era

Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Undated/Ronald Reagan Presidental Library/Getty)
War and peace, and missed chances

Nancy Reagan was laid to rest on Friday. Mrs. Reagan was as much a creature of Hollywood as of politics, and, as the Washington Post put it, her funeral was “like a flashback to a bygone era, with celebrities like Wayne Newton, Anjelica Huston, Melissa Rivers, Tina Sinatra, Bo Derek, and Ralph Lauren.”

I am not entirely sure that all of those ladies and gentlemen think of themselves as belonging to — horrible cliché — a “bygone era.” But Mrs. Reagan’s passing is a reminder of a lost time — and a lost opportunity.

I was 17 years old on November 9, 1989. Like everyone else my age, I had grown up in a world in which conflict with the Soviet Union and nuclear annihilation were assumed to be mainly questions of when rather than if. The post-apocalyptic nuclear hellscape was familiar territory: Dreamscape, The Day After, Red Dawn. In elementary school, we did drills in which we hid under our desks, as though that would protect us from the thermonuclear warhead that would be exploded over Reese Air Force Base down the road.

The movies stayed apocalyptic, but the music changed: Euro-trash hair-metal bands were singing ballads about contemplating the currents of history while walking on the Moskva River, and British dance-pop groups were “watching the world wake up from history.”

But Communism hadn’t simply been blown away by the winds of change: That the United States and Western Europe were standing and free at the end of the Cold War and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics wasn’t was no mere accident of history. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan had all made difficult and ugly calculations, in theaters ranging from Vietnam to Poland, that had ensured that outcome. While John Kerry was denouncing the U.S. military as a gang of criminals and Bernie Sanders was literally honeymooning in the Soviet Union, the actual work of dismantling the worldwide Communist enterprise was being done by unsentimental men and women who rarely were thanked for it — and who were, often as not, denounced as monsters.

We have forgotten, or never learned, many important words from that era: Holodomor, Katyn, Yezhovshchina. In school, we are taught that the great monsters of the era were men such as Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, who showed too much enthusiasm in their campaigns to expose those Americans — Americans — who took active roles in a worldwide political movement that murdered 100 million people, often in ways too horrifying to relate in this space.

I remember the political humor of that era well: The Spitting Image puppet Reagan (if you are around my age, you may remember that from Genesis’s “Land of Confusion” video), Reagan Youth, and the horrifying moral equivalency of our so-called liberals: “Sure, the Soviets had Stalin, the gulag, famine as a weapon of political terror, but what about . . . Nancy Reagan’s horoscopes, huh?”

Mrs. Reagan was hated because President Reagan was hated. There wasn’t a great deal to hate about Nancy, and so such vices and foibles as she had — quaint, in retrospect — were exaggerated to unrecognizable proportions. Spend any time around politics, and you’ll quickly understand that the lie lives forever: A century from now, people will still believe that John Ashcroft draped a statute of Lady Justice because he was offended by her nipple.

(No, that didn’t happen.)

Mr. T — truly a figure from a “bygone era,” I suppose — attended Mrs. Reagan’s funeral. He was, as the Post reminds us, “a stalwart ally in Mrs. Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ anti-drug campaign.” The eye-rolling, like the D in Laurence Tureaud, is silent. Goodness, how they hated “Just Say No.” You weren’t a comedian in the 1980s if you didn’t have a “Just Say No” bit. Hell, Chris Rock is still doing “Just Say No” material. President Reagan got a great deal of drug policy wrong in the 1980s, but Mrs. Reagan was right: You really shouldn’t take drugs. They really are bad for you. And, the fine minds of Bill Hicks et al. notwithstanding, the subject is less funny than you’d think.

After the Berlin Wall came down on that unforgettable November day, and Communism truly began to collapse upon itself, we might have done anything. What we decided we wanted was Bill Clinton and free false teeth. We were exhausted, and we felt like we’d earned a little self-indulgence. So we sat on our collective national ass until September 11, 2001.

We felt like we’d earned a little self-indulgence. So we sat on our collective national ass until September 11, 2001.

That follows a familiar pattern in American history. At the end of World War II, the United States was an unprecedented worldwide economic hegemon. We might have done anything at all with that opportunity. Instead, we followed Lyndon Baines Johnson, one of the grossest self-serving opportunists in American history, and built an ineffective, expensive, corrupt welfare state, a massive new one on top of the relatively modest one inherited from the New Deal. At the end of the Civil War, we might have made radical and necessary social changes — the will to act and the opportunity existed — but instead tried to go back to normal, as though de jure liberty could really endure alongside de facto oppression.

We are, though it is not always entirely evident, at a similar crossroads today, one that might be fruitful beyond our dreaming. We currently are trying to sort out whether we wish to elect as our next president a former president’s wife who may be and probably already should have been indicted, a cartoon socialist, or a game-show host. There is in the race a fine constitutional scholar who is also a man of deep conviction and patriotism, but — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — he has pointy features.

Mrs. Reagan joins her husband, as great a leader as I expect to see, in her reward. But the work goes on. I can remember being a teenager and watching the wall come down, and wondering — with joy — what would come next. And much good has come. But we also have failed to make the most out of the opportunities that history keeps handing us, a failure that we cannot keep up indefinitely.

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