Death of a Salesman

Ronald Reagan, 19112004

It helped that, just like a play, nearly all the worst stuff happened discreetly offstage, as far as most of the American public was concerned—like the thousands who died of AIDS on his watch or the 20,000 casualties in the Nicaraguan civil war Reagan promoted, illegally, when Congress tried to thwart him. I can still remember my patriotic thrill when he pronounced the thuggish contras "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers"; so far as I know, George Washington never went in for mortaring hospitals, but that may only be because he didn't have mortars.

Sure, the Iran-contra scandal was a worse threat to American democracy than Watergate—short-circuiting our whole system of government, as opposed to diddling an election that was a lock anyway. But nobody was about to impeach smiling Ron over it, partly because nobody really understood how it worked. Something people did understand but noticeably couldn't get outraged about—for many go-getting American psychos, it was part of the turn-on—was the callousness that the Reagan administration's social Darwinism urged all good citizens to see as a virtue; even allowing that Democratic social programs hadn't fixed the inner cities' problems, why it was either more humane or more sensible to let them rot was never explained. But after all, if urban African-Americans wanted to escape gangs, poverty and despair, there was always the army.

At the core of the Reagan legend is the mantra that his presidency made America feel good about itself again—an interesting claim for Republicans to make, since it sounds like just the sort of self-esteem therapy they snort at when, say, first-graders are the beneficiaries. Not entirely inappropriately, the picture it conjures up is of a commander in chief playing Julie Andrews as the governess in The Sound of Music: "You've brought music back into the house, Ron." In individual cases, bucking up a patient's spirits when his or her material situation isn't improving—or is, in fact, deteriorating, as ours was from infrastructure to multitrillion-dollar deficitis to yawning disparities between rich and poor—is usually accomplished with drugs; Reagan was one. In a wonderful Herblock cartoon from 1986, a headline reporting that the U.S. has just become the world's leading debtor nation is greeted by hordes of celebrating Americans all holding up proud forefingers: "We're number one!"

Mystique he undeniably had. No other chief executive has been so at ease with his own preposterousness, baffling everyone who ever tried to analyze him. The formidable Garry Wills wrestled the enigma in Reagan's America: Innocents at Home and emerged never having laid a glove on the man; indeed, Wills has never been the same since. Nixon is comprehensible; Reagan is not. He was affable but remote, folksy but not human, so completely the actor that his fraudulence was his integrity; unlike poor Nixon, who couldn't ask for the time without raising the suspicion that he meant to steal your watch, Reagan was at his most convincing and disarmingly sincere when he was spouting transparent balderdash. Up to a point, anyhow—in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks tells a remarkable story about watching a presidential speech in a roomful of people with severe aphasia, a condition that impairs or destroys understanding of verbal content but leaves its victims preternaturally alert to the authenticity of facial expressions, mannerisms and tone. Every solemn, ringingly earnest sentence out of Reagan's mouth had the patients rolling on the floor laughing.

Of course, it's possible Sacks could have revisited the lounge a decade later and witnessed an identical reaction to a Clinton speech. But Reagan's elusiveness unnerved even admirers. Trying to pin down her ex-boss's disconcerting effect in What I Saw at the Revolution, his adoring speechwriter Noonan came up with a distinctly creepy comparison—to the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, all bland goodwill and upbeat talk that somehow add up to unfeeling hogwash. Then again, Noonan has more than a little Blanche DuBois in her, which explains why her later encomiums to her great captain have gotten as hysterical as Blanche sending SOS telegrams to Mr. Shep Huntleigh—and getting an answer, even though he's imaginary.

If Blanche Noonan ever worries about the posthumous rep of the man who mistook his country for a hat, though, she needn't. Overseen by Grover Norquist, the Reagan Legacy Project has had all this well in hand for years. Besides working to stick Reagan's name on as many buildings, streets, ships and mountains as possible, the organization's goals include carving his face on Mount Rushmore and putting his face on the dime. Even George Will huffed at "trying to plaster Reagan's name all over the country the way Lenin was plastered over Eastern Europe, Mao over China and Saddam Hussein all over Iraq." Norquist's basically Stalinist propaganda technique—enough memorials, and it could take a century to unconvince future generations that this was a great man—is sure some way to honor the most famous anti-Communist of all time. But to be fair, Reagan only objected to the "Workers of the world, unite" part, not the cult of personality.

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