The surreal continues…

/ 11 June 2004

I have been watching President Reagan’s funeral this morning. In part, because it’s a national ritual of sorts, and recording it makes for a good example in my classes. But also partly to honor the reality that many, many people all over the world were watching it. I have had the experience once again, which I remember now from 20 years ago, of experiencing this kind of internal movement in relation to Reagan. I remember watching him on TV when he was president, feeling like I deeply believed what he was saying, and then only later, kind of “unglueing” myself from his charisma and kicking my critical mind into gear.

This morning there were even a few moments when tears came to my eyes. I suppose that's appropriate for multiple reasons, but it strikes me that, at least in part, it's appropriate because over and over again I was reminded of his gifts of rhetoric and presence. People repeatedly recalled what a personable guy he was, how agreeable, how kind the discourse was when he was president. What a bizarre thing! This man, who presided over so many horrible aspects of US imperial policy, not to mention dismantling of many, many, many domestic programs, should be remembered for his agreeable-ness. But that's the great communicator. That's the way in which he was so adept, as were his associates, at creating and maintaining a certain kind of presence. Even in death -- and Peter Jennings pointed out several times how much Reagan himself was involved in planning this state funeral -- he has managed to create a service that could bring me to tears. That is a true gift for combining narrative and ritual, and it is at the heart of symbolic leadership.

But that such a gift was used in the service of what it was... ah, this is difficult. There have been only a few times in my political memory when I have been moved to that extent by someone speaking to issues in ways I agree with. That's part of what struck me about Howard Dean. It happened a few times with Dick Celeste and Paul Wellstone, too. But only very rarely. Not with the kind of sustained persistence of Reagan. What is it about Reagan and his associates? And what has happened to those of us on the progressive end of things, that we can't find ways to communicate as effectively? Or on the religious end of things? I can do the logical argument, I can point out the ways in which the infrastructure of the media shuts us down and promotes neoconservative ideas, but it still doesn't get at the heart of the cultural symbolism. It doesn't get at "reasoning by means of sympathetic identification." We, that is progressives, have just not been very successful in doing that.

"Leaders aren't people who do great things, but people who get other people to do great things" -- that's what Dan Quayle said about Reagan. It's the "vision" thing. Others added other things: "What you saw was what you got" "He shined the light on others" "his first prayer after being shot was for Hinckley, not himself" "no better way to celebrate the light, than in a remembrance service for Reagan"... Argh. There is very little way in which "what you saw was what you got" with him, but people BELIEVED it to be. And clearly the media are helping to support such a hagiography now.

POSTSCRIPT: I had a moment that felt very surreal in particular, when Bush finished his eulogy and the military choir launched into the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The same arrangement was used in the September 14, 2001 service in the same cathedral, and also played as Bush stepped down from the pulpit (and why was Bush speaking from there? what was the symbolism?)