Jul/Aug 2004 Salon

Tears of a Clown

by Stanley Jenkins

I can't get my mind around it.

It is too strange when Ronald Reagan dies. As if the "don't squeeze the Charmin" guy were to die. Or Fred Flintstone. Or Gumby.

The man—as a public persona—was a perfect cipher. Except maybe to Nancy. A cartoon. A prophet. He was the original what you see is what you get man. Wholly opaque in his transparency. He did not lie. He told you what he was going to do and he did it. And we laughed. We bent over and begged him to do it. And laughed. Voted against our economic interests. And laughed.

But I am struck by a notion. And it is by no means idle. This is not the worst of evils. Or perhaps even evil itself—if evil must never amount to substance.

Because, like a fool dancing on the precipice, he ended the Cold War. Scared them shitless. With his Star Wars. And Evil Empire. And that's not nothing. And I don't even care to hear about all the other forces and circumstances that led to the end of the Cold War. Of course the situation was more complex. Of course there was a confluence of masks. Give credit where credit is due. The cowboy spooked the east. And the role was well played. And he drew the first sketch of a circle in which—in these days without memory or history—we might belong. Though not all of us.

And who else but a cartoon could have told Mr. Gorbechev to tear down that wall?

I do not mean to degrade the man. I never knew the man. And I suspect nobody else did either. Except maybe Nancy. I knew the persona. And the persona was something to behold. The vindication of hollywood happy endings. The golly gee that justified the genocide of natives—the same golly gee that made Dr. King's dream our dream. Or allowed us to declare war on poverty. There is something of the best of America in the mask that is Ronald Reagan.

And the worst. Of course.

But the worst is always with us. That's hardly the point. There is also always something else. O do not ask what your country can do for you. Glimpses of a higher history. There is nothing to fear but fear itself. There are within the body politic—O shining city on a hill—better angels to which appeals might be made. Just ask Mr. Lincoln. But—and here's the kick in the ass—when we turn to those better angels, we lose sight of something. We pay a price. We almost always become cruel and selfish. That's true too. When you give yourself to ideals you will end up with blood on your hands.

But, of course, we always do anyway.

So it comes down to this: Is it better to bear the mark of our complicity in choosing or in refusing to choose? In hoping and hurting—or in hand-wringing?

Here's to Ronald Reagan. A man I never voted for and would not now if I had a chance. Here's to Aimee Semple Macpherson. And Jack Armstrong, All American Boy. And to Billy Sunday. And Charlie Chaplin. And Ragged Dick. And Harry Houdini.

Here's to the cipher.

And the conviction that you can be anyone or anything you choose to be despite gravity and genealogy.

And here's to those who have always suffered the consequences of the Great and paid the price of Destiny. Here's to the voiceless and the poor.


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