We Hated Reagan
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.
The one time we didn’t hate Reagan was, ironically, the moment of his juggernaut 1984 reelection -- we were too shocked. For months we had handed out flyers, hoisted Mondale-Ferraro signs, and chanted “We want Fritz!” (on cue). We had been flattered that a European radio outlet interviewed us about our involvement. We had even known the precious gratification of wagging a placard in Reagan’s face -- and of catching his startled reaction – when one time during the campaign he came through town. Then, on election night, a funny thing happened in a luxury hotel ballroom rented by the New York City Democratic Party. It wasn’t the red-state barrage projected aloft on oversized TV screens. Nor was it the consolation graphic of our solid blue Manhattan (which had voted 70% Democrat). It was après le déluge watching recognizable city councilmen and congressmen make the rounds with their entourages -- flashing smiles, slapping backs, clinking glasses -- the very definition of ambition. “Wait!” a voice in my head cried, “Reagan just wiped the mat with our guy. Something’s not right. Put away the TV screens. Take out the drawing boards. Now!” Shortly, the flutter of Sartrean nausea ceded to Machiavellian calculation: “They just got re-elected (or hadn’t even stood for election). Of course they’re celebrating.” It was a sober lesson on the distinction between movement politics and party politics -- the emotional impulse to the former versus the mechanical operations of the latter -- a lesson made possible by master politician Reagan. Because he had mastered it. (Last year, when President Obama nominated one of us to the Supreme Court, reports that Reagan’s 1980 triumph had driven her to a drunken fit I read with sympathy.)
From then on we hated Reagan viscerally, visually, volubly, tactilely, olfactorily, and matter-of-factly. We hated Reagan’s hefty hair, rugged wrinkles, jowly jaw line, and full-throated but still lathery voice. We hated his fluid alternations between bravado and modesty, sternness and joviality. Because many of us came from divorced, single-mother or (as Reagan did) even more imbalanced households, we hated -- precisely when we ought to have appreciated -- Reagan’s hard-earned, paternal authority. And we hated his perfect complement, Nancy, whose saucer-eyed smile beamed marital bliss and maternal vigilance.
We hated Nancy and Ronald Reagan because one night they alighted into our living rooms to suggest that we just say No to drugs. Decked out in Vans or Doc Martens, in Madness or Clash t-shirts, suffering ill-sculpted haircuts, we hated the Reagans because their delivery was as dainty as their message was pressing. We hated the Reagans because we knew too well some who couldn’t manage to say No -- and because already many of us were saying Yes.
We hated Reagan because he pursued a transcendent anti-Soviet policy, while we of the opposition fixated on missiles and silos. We demonstrated in Central Park for a nuclear freeze, we read With Enough Shovels (a book denigrating his nuclear experts), and we watched The Day After (a TV movie about a nuclear holocaust in America). We burst with indignation that bombing Russia beginning in five minutes was no joke. And when we came home from an organized spring break vacation to the Soviet Union, our most salient takeaway was that Russians were using plastic bags as prophylactics -- because we were fixated on “missiles” and “silos.”
We hated Reagan because extreme radical attorney William Kunstler, defender of the Chicago Seven and negotiator of the Attica prison riot, was grandfather to one of us. During an anticipated lecture at our school, Kunstler let drop that 1980s America reminded him of decadent ancient Rome. It was an aside, merely, but it left a desolate impression that, along with everything else about the leonine lawyer, contrasted utterly with Reagan. It was as well consistent for the man who would later defend Omar Abdel Rahman, the jihadist murderer who in 1993 nearly destroyed the World Trade Center -- atop which our class held its senior prom.
We hated Reagan because, bored with penny loafers and Benetton sweaters, we were tempted to pick up graffiti markers and spray paint. One of us in fact became a notorious tagger, quietly admired and encouraged, who died spectacularly during a nighttime spree. Under the influence of a certain Simon and Garfunkel lyric, we understood our classmate’s interrupted life as prophetic instead of wasted -- as long as we kept hitting Rewind, then Play, and our Walkman’s batteries didn’t wear out.
We hated Reagan because he told inoffensive jokes like Andy Rooney -- and unlike Rooney, he relished telling them well. When not aping Andy Rooney or Woody Allen or Mark Russell, we discovered (to our private astonishment) that we could tell bigoted jokes also. Or if not tell, then retell them. Or if not retell, then laugh at them. Or if not laugh at, then tolerate them. We hated Reagan because the Lycée Français neighboring our high school was full of snobs -- unlike us.
We hated Reagan because in our first presidential primary we had the audacity to vote for Jesse Jackson -- and all we got was a lousy sound bite. We hated Reagan because that year the Democrats nominated someone as bland as Michael Dukakis. We hated Reagan because Dukakis was trounced by the even blander George H. W. Bush.
Then we started hating Bush.
Sarah Palin we hated before anyone had ever heard of her.
Let’s face it, we hated President Ronald Reagan for one reason and one reason only, that which confident liberals insist is the removable basis of all hatred: Ignorance.
PJM FLASHBACK: "The Anti-Reagan."