He inspired me to make toys Up until the 1980 election, I wasn’t much interested in politics. At that time, I was graduating from IU in Bloomington, doing a lot of theater and starting a job at the local convalescent center, where I cared for the folks who’d been dealt a bad hand by time and circumstance. Reagan seemed a bit on the dim side. This feeling was not based in ideology. It was simply the fact that my BS meter went off the dial whenever I saw him campaigning on television or pictured in newspapers and magazines. So when he was reelected president in 1984, I was astonished. The next day I was hunting through dumpsters — a favorite pastime of mine — and discovered a discarded child’s toy television set. You know the kind: Wind it up and the scroll inside displays a moving scenario.
I don’t remember the original scroll of the toy; I only know I took that plastic TV home, unscrewed its housing and pasted upon the scroll pictures of Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan and fresh young Republicans with arms upraised.
When I screwed it back together and wound the knob, the toy actually functioned. A tinkly tune accompanied the black and white images of a mythical man in a mythical country.
And so began my political life.
Over the rest of his presidency, my interest — no, fascination — with Reagan blossomed. I began to tape his speeches on my audio recorder. On the south side of the square in downtown Bloomington was a tiny radio station: WQAX. There I could mix Reagan’s speeches with music. I tried various punk soundtracks to create dissonance, but after trial and error, I decided that Aaron Copland-like orchestral music matched Reagan’s rhetoric best. The dramatic swells would nearly bring me to tears.
Ronald Reagan was a poet. Or rather, his speeches were poetic. I don’t know who his speechwriters were — my interest in politics didn’t go THAT deep — but whoever those clever people were, they sure knew how to craft evocative prose.
Meanwhile, because of my work in the convalescent home, I was experiencing our country’s compunction to warehouse its undesirables. I saw nothing in his presidency that addressed the suffering.
Reagan’s second term saw his deregulation policies continue to put economic control in the hands of the private sector — a sector interested primarily in profit-making. The S&L debacle was but one symptom of that strategy of self-interest. Big business flourished; the little guy got smaller, and the Iran-Contra Affair was but icing on the diabolical cake.
Meanwhile, Reagan began nodding off at Cabinet meetings or saying silly things like trees cause pollution. We didn’t know then that he was possibly exhibiting the first signs of Alzheimer’s.
And now, Dutch is dead. The testimonials and accolades and speeches and television shows and books and the whole tsunami has begun and we are inundated with nostalgia for the Great Communicator.
In one of the many memoir-type articles written about Reagan in the ’90s, I learned that as a young man he was employed as a radio announcer for baseball games. Someone at the baseball stadium would telegraph the play-by-play to Reagan, who, sitting in the radio station, would then describe the game as if it was happening right before him.
I can think of no better metaphor for his presidency.
Throughout his eight years, in poetry that still makes me ache, Reagan translated the wishes of corporations, the military — all the lobbies in the market of self-interest — and gave us a play-by-play of how noble we were, how beautiful our country, how expansive our hearts.
Ronald Reagan woke me up to the realities of politics and business. He taught me to distrust the smooth deliveries of all politicians — left and right. Mostly, he stirred the passion inside me. I’m just sorry for all the trees and rivers and soil and poor people who suffered through his tenure.
Ironically, it’s his suffering that recently inspired Nancy Reagan to go against the grain of the Republican Party, and call for stem cell research.
The legacy of Reagan holds unpredictable results.
I still have my Reagan TV, fashioned almost 20 years ago. The scroll mechanism no longer functions, and so Dutch is frozen for all time in black and white, smiling, a poignant homily on the tip of his tongue.