February 18, 2016KR BlogCurrent EventsReadingRemembrancesUncategorized

Reagan on the Couch, Part 1

In the late summer of 1976, from the tan shag carpet of our living room in the Taco Flats neighborhood of Cupertino, California, I watched on TV with my brother, mother, and step-father the Republican National Convention. My first exposure to presidential elections had come almost four years earlier, when my mother, fresh from prison and ready to make a difference in the world, ordered me to mail my allowance to George McGovern.

“But, Mother,” I begged.

“Do it,” she said.

She gave me an envelope and a pencil and read out the address from a McGovern campaign brochure. I’d tried earlier to read the brochure’s text, but it was all about stuff I as a 7-year-old couldn’t possibly understand, like inflation and farm policy. On the cover was a picture of McGovern in a suit and tie, smiling, looking up and off into the distance. I had no idea why he needed my allowance. On my walk to the corner mailbox, my teeth tore open the envelope. I emptied the quarters and dimes into my pocket. Then I dropped the torn, empty envelope into the big blue belly of the box.

But by 1976—which would turn out to be, were I graphing it, the apex of our nuclear family life, a full two years before the heroin came back full force on my mom and my stepdad exchanged us for an almost identical single-mom-led family a couple towns south—I was all up in the politics. It was hard not to be. In the summer of ‘73, while my friends and even my brother were out riding bikes and playing basketball in the California sun, my mother and I watched in her dark bedroom on public television every minute of every day of the Watergate hearings. I got breaks—every 15 minutes or so I’d run to the stove to light her a fresh Benson & Hedges Menthol 100—but that summer was spent, essentially, in a smoky back room, talking politics. And it wasn’t just Watergate that kept my mother and me immersed in politics between the elections of ’72 and ’76. There was Vietnam, the Black Panthers, women’s rights, Cesar Chavez, the recession, the Cold War—the list went on and on. By the time the primaries rolled around, I was a pretty engaged little leftie.


(Photo courtesy of www.vintageadsandstuff.com)

The ‘76 Republican primary had been a fierce battle, with the incumbent Gerald Ford holding just a slight delegate lead over Ronald Reagan heading into the convention. This would be the last primary campaign, in fact, in which the winner wasn’t already chosen by the time of the convention. But Reagan, who had attacked Ford from the right, made a crucial tactical error. In trying to woo moderate delegates onto his side, he announced that were he to win the nomination he’d select as his running mate the centrist Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker. The announcement of a centrist enraged the far right, especially North Carolina Senator (and hardcore segregationist) Jesse Helms. During the primary battle, Helms’s backing had been instrumental in Reagan winning the South and thus staying alive in the campaign. But Helms felt ideologically betrayed by Reagan’s tactical maneuver and removed his support. Ford then went on to win, by a close vote, on the first ballot.

But what interested me as I watched the TV, safe and sound in my living room, a part of and surrounded by my prototypical American family, wasn’t the political calculations of what it might mean for the Democrats if Reagan won or if Ford won, or the various manipulations of technical parliamentary rules. I wasn’t even concerned with the intra-party warfare over how to deal with the Soviet Union, which was, from the far right’s perspective, easily the biggest issue of all. What struck me that night was how sad I felt for Reagan. I remember footage of him and Nancy on a couch, maybe holding hands, just after they realized he’d lost. In my memory, Nancy looks at him, then at the camera, then off to the side, then back at him. And he just looks straight ahead, the tiniest bit fidgety, forlorn.

It’s possible I’m making that footage up. I’d later, like all of us, spend eight years watching Reagan day in and day out; my mind is filled with pictures and footage of him. It’s possible also that Reagan (and, for that matter, Nancy) might have been acting for the camera. In fact, at least in some sense, this is almost assuredly true. But what has never left me—has, indeed, followed me for almost four decades now, through what I consider the travesty of his presidency and then the mainstreaming of his radical right wing ideology and then, finally, the audacious revisionist glorification of his legacy—is that overwhelming sense of sadness I felt for him. That image of him and Nancy on that couch has been as powerful in my psyche as all the real world wrongs I attribute to him. That image acts on me—no doubt—in ways I hardly even know.


But what if I have indeed manufactured the image? What if the image I see in my mind today is actually a compilation of a million other images, enriched by a million thoughts, feelings, ideas? What if my mind created the image to give me something to hold onto, to give me a reason, or justification, to feel a certain way? If you were to research that convention and find no evidence of the Reagans on a couch, post-defeat, I wouldn’t be surprised. But then, what incentive would I have for making up a memory, or, more devastating, why would I change a memory’s physical contours to match my emotions? Why, I’m asking, would I make a fiction of the past?

Next time, in Part 2: Maybe the fiction was being made for me; Mexico City is made of adobe huts; it’s probable I feel sorry for Donald Trump; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ extraordinary Between the World and Me provides some answers, and some more questions.