We Hated Reagan
A memoir of ignorance.
June 17, 2011 - 12:00 am
They now looked upon me as a dangerous heretic, which I certainly was from their point of view, and I considered them a threat to the well-being of everything I now held dear, which they certainly were.
– Norman Podhoretz, Ex-Friends
Ronald Reagan is widely regarded as the greatest American president since Franklin Roosevelt, possibly the greatest of the 20th century, and definitely one of the greatest ever. His centenary this year has elicited a cavalcade of conservative encomia. All try to distill the essence of his leadership and transmit it to a new generation. Rare, however, are those who didn’t much care for him as president but whose opinions and convictions have shifted over time. Their assessments, however, make sense: his presidency created a new voting demographic (“Reagan Democrats”) and, often overlooked, the towering Republican legend had been more than half his life a loyal Democrat. As a youngster in Manhattan in the 1980s, I myself was formed in an intensely Democratic milieu where distrust, resentment, and repulsion underwrote our attitudes toward Reagan. Any honest attempt by any of us to reckon with him must begin by admitting that, at heart, we hated Reagan.
We hated Reagan because he hailed from another country, or another version of this country, a strangely idyllic ranch outside Santa Barbara, California. That place had no place in our parents’ iconic 1970s New Yorker poster — of a commanding but caricatured worldview, looking west from 9th Avenue. Hence it had no place for us. From our cultured, concrete canyons, the Reagan Ranch was and would remain terra incognita.
We hated Reagan because the grown-ups around us snickered at his old-time movie roles in Bedtime for Bonzo and Knute Rockne, All American. That we, at tender ages, were perfectly enamored of The Muppet Movie and E.T. and Rocky and Chariots of Fire bothered no one. We hated Reagan because MAD magazine mocked his interior secretary with the caption “Watt…We Worry!” Because New York Times editorials tended to sublimate MAD’s bias, at age twelve we gladly took out our first Gray Lady subscriptions — to the nodding approval of the grown-ups around us.
We hated Reagan because he was shot just four months after John Lennon had been shot and murdered. Instant karma got Reagan, we quipped mercilessly, and Hinckley was just a patsy. Before, Reagan was aggravating because he reminded us that Red, White, and Blue stood for more than just Beatles albums. Now we hated Reagan because more than ever he competed with “John” for our imagination.
We hated Reagan because our parents went Greyhound to show solidarity with striking air traffic controllers. During our first foray ever into the Deep South, we watched a white driver disembark a black passenger for consuming beer on board. The incident elicited a loud whisper from us about “racist” drivers — a self-righteous gesture on a self-righteous journey that comforted no one (except us). Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in the end, but along the way we hated him because we couldn’t admit that the return leg of every Freedom Ride is a Responsibility Ride.
We hated Reagan because M*A*S*H was cancelled after eleven seasons and over 250 episodes. We wanted war to be over, but not the sitcoms that made light of (our side of) it. Fortunately, we could still watch the show in syndication up to fifteen times per week. Thirty years after a Korean stalemate and eight years after a Vietnamese defeat, we knew more about M*A*S*H than we did about Korea or Vietnam — or about Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan.
We hated Reagan because one English teacher, a beret-sporting poet, pronounced Chile “CHEE-lay” (which rhymes with its martyred socialist president, Allende). Reference to Allende was license to hate Nixon — but Nixon was before our time, so we hated Reagan instead. We hated Reagan because one of our parents had been mentioned in Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night — and those Yippie antiwar protestors still couldn’t levitate the Pentagon. We hated Reagan because J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories was even better than The Catcher in the Rye — and Reagan had no use for either. We hated Reagan because we trudged over an hour through muggy subways and soggy streets to hear Allen Ginsberg recite his poetry — and the Beat bard read only new stuff. We hated Reagan because in his speeches the former Sunday school teacher was neither afraid nor ashamed to invoke God — while our parents’ only mentions of Him were remotely memorized Bible verses mouthed in erudite defiance or vague chagrin.