Plus: Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004Steve Hammer

My grandmother celebrated her 85th birthday on Sunday and it was an absolutely perfect day for a family reunion. I am sad for his family at his passing. And I am glad that my own family is intact after

surviving the Reagan years.

My dad flew in from California for the occasion. My sister and her two young children made the trip from New Mexico. And a gaggle of distant and not-so-distant relatives drove in from across Indiana to pay tribute to my grandma.

It was the best possible family reunion and being there filled me with extreme happiness. I was just glad to be there.

My grandmother was born in 1919, in a world quite different from ours. She was married at 16 and a mother at 17, giving birth in the hottest month of the hottest summer in Indiana history. My grandfather and her struggled all their lives to make an honest living, in an era when nothing came easy and the deck was stacked against the working poor even more than it is now.

For years, she lived in a small town called Mecca, Ind., which is off State Road 67 west of Rockville, a few miles away from the Illinois border. It was and is a poorer community, but one filled with pride.

(An aside: A few years ago, I trashed Mecca as a redneck haven in a column I wrote, causing distress to certain of my family members. I know now that writing that made me an even bigger redneck than anyone in western Indiana and I apologize.)

Anyway, the party on Sunday was especially festive. My 2-year-old nephew ran around the backyard picking up sticks, throwing a Nerf ball and wondering why all the old people were sitting around a table talking.

My grandmother received a ton of gifts, but they were inadequate to express the love and affection she receives. I personally owe her a debt that is incalculable.

The food was good, the company better and the event will always be in my memory. It was an honor to be at the family reunion and quite a contrast from the sad news of the weekend.

I want to preface anything I say about Ronald Wilson Reagan with words about my own family. I know what it's like to have a beloved figure in my life and so I extend my sympathies to the Reagans at their loss.

Having said that, I was sad when Reagan was elected president and glad when he left office.

I remember with fondness his speech at the Berlin Wall, where he delivered a speech that was the aural equivalent of the Sex Pistols' Berlin Wall song, "Holidays In The Sun." He helped end the Cold War and temporarily eliminated the threat of nuclear war.

Reagan was the president of my teen-age years, an omnipresent commander-in-chief who was short on details but strong on optimism and patriotism. I rebelled against the Reagan revolution, just as I rebelled against pretty much everything else in those days.

I wore a bright red "Impeach Reagan" button on my favorite jacket pretty much non-stop from 1981 through 1989, when he finally left office. And I was against pretty much everything he ever did in public policy.

He ran up record deficits that took almost 20 years to undo. He sold weapons to terrorists in Iran and used the money to illegally finance anti-Communist fighters in Nicaragua. He began the process of wealth redistribution, taking money from the middle-class and poor and funneling it into the bank accounts of the rich.

Arms dealers and tank manufacturers never had a better friend than Ronald Reagan. The industry of war entered a golden age of profits that continues to this day.

He helped open the doors of the White House to George H.W. Bush and his kin, a fact which continues to punish us to this day.

And now, in death, he again serves as a propaganda tool for the right wing. We will have to endure hundreds of tributes to him from the current president. We will be exhorted to win one for the Gipper again and again.

The truth is, the Gipper did win. And he's still winning. America is less free than it was when Reagan entered office. The rich are richer and the poor are poorer. The military-industrial complex that Reagan loved so dearly has taken over the government permanently.

Yep, the Gipper was victorious and we will continue to suffer under the weight of that victory for decades to come.

Even given all of that, I never hated Reagan and I still can't. He lived the American Dream. He was a poor kid from Illinois, born in the days before talking motion pictures. (Reagan was 16 when Al Jolson ripped shit up in The Jazz Singer.) He headed off to Hollywood, made a fortune, had sex with numerous starlets, met rich people and went to work for them.

We are being bombarded with images of the benign, joking Gipper. The media coverage won't die down until after his funeral on Friday and maybe not even then. Those images are accurate. He was a friendly man. He liked to tell jokes. His political career brought great benefit to some people.

His last years were sad and I feel empathy for his family, watching a once-vibrant man fade away. But he lived a long, full life.

I am sad for his family at his passing. And I am glad that my own family is intact after surviving the Reagan years. I'm sorry he's gone. But I'm not eager to have his likes in politics again.


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