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Like most people my age, I remember the moment well. It was January, 1986, and I was in third grade. My teacher, Mr. Cohen, had been summoned into the hall; seconds later, he returned to make a pronouncement to the class: "Something terrible has happened."
What?" I quickly asked, in my memory the only student especially concerned about the mysterious news. "Has the President been shot?" It was, of course, the Challenger explosion that Mr.Cohen spoke of. But to me the news was a relief. The explosion was a tragedy of science, not a triumph of human evil. President Reagan and the stability he embodied would Iive on.
Reagan wasn't just a figure of comfort and constancy for me, as he was for millions around the world. I also saw him as the leader of a Republican party of which I, at age 8, considered myself a member.
My early allegiance to the Republicans was a function of resistance and of pride, not of political principles. It was because I was raised in a liberal Jewish family in New York City and we were long-standing Democrats, the descendants of relatively recent immigrants, that it was novel to be a Republican. It was because I attended the United Nations International School for seven years, where I was one of about seven kids in my class born in the U.S.A., that I was particularly amenable to Republican patriotism. It was Reagan's image as an uplifting, all-American leader that made it easy to associate with the G.O.P., especially when compared with the wishy-washy Democratic Party of the '80s.
It wasn't so much that I wanted to be Republican, then, as that I wanted to be someone I was not: the average American. Every Thanksgiving during elementary school, I would come home from New York's Thanksgiving Day Parade and watch football, imaging content Middle-Americans watching the game while preparing for enormous family dinners in houses with backyards on tree-lined suburban streets. In short, I wanted to be Alex Keaton, the Midwestern, capitalist, conservative, all-American teenager portrayed perfectly by Michael J. Fox (a Canadian, incidentally) on "Family Ties."
At some point between the January day in 1986 and Election Day of 1992, however, issues came to outweigh images. I remember jubilantly celebrating the triumph of the Democratic ticket, expecting with complete glee and naive (though still plausible) confidence that the newly-elected President Clinton and Vice President Gore, would occupy the White House for the next 16 years--well into the next millennium, which then seemed far away.
Indeed, there was little Republican left in me by 1992. Exposure to history in high school, to political philosophy through Lincoln-Douglas debate, to current events from the newspapers had all convinced me that I was a Democrat at heart. Pat Bacchanal's xenophobic and bitterly homophobic rhetoric at the 1992. Republican convention make me not just a Democrat, but a Democrat infuriated at and disgusted by much of the Republican party.
But then, as now, Reagan Republicanism was different. It was a time when America believed it was above partisanship, when there were more urgent (and less difficult) preoccupations than campaign finance reform, when people did not hate each other for who they were or from where they came.
In part, this image of the '80s persists because I was too young to notice that the rich were getting richer while the poor lost out, that money that Reagan could have allocated to AIDS research or education was being diverted to a bloated defense budget. In part, too, this image persists because it was a simpler time: with the Cold War not yet won, the policy spotlight focused not on health care, affirmative action and gay rights, but on Star Wars.
Last Sunday, the New York Times published a report detailing the progress of President Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. At age 86, Reagan has become ghost-like. He speaks infrequently, uttering only short phrases. He nods back to passers-by, not knowing why they nodded to him in the first place. He plays golf, but cannot complete all 18 holes. He can still dress and feed himself, but sometimes wakes up at 2 a.m. looking for breakfast.
In sorting through the significance of President Reagan's steadily deteriorating condition, many focus on the fact that in less than ten years, the most powerful man in the world has become nearly helpless.
For me, however, and for our generation, President Reagan's deterioration is not only a reminder of the fragility of the human mind or of the tragedy of Alzheimer's. And it isn't so much about the presidency as it is about our childhoods. Never mind that Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter remain alive and well. They were and always will be before our time. For us, Ronald Reagan was more than a president. He was the first person we first saw in the Oval Office on the evening news--the American some of us first aspired to be.
As Reagan gradually fades into a silent twilight, so, too, however unwillingly, does a certain time of our lives fade into the quiet of memory. It was a time when politics was the concern of other, older people, when American patriotism didn't seem to mean hating the immigrant. It was a time when we made decisions based on what we thought we knew, not on what we thought--when it was possible for me to be a Republican. It was a time that could only occur in childhood, and only, for us, in the 1980s. It was Ronald Reagan's America, and, with our young eyes, we could see it better than anyone.
Geoffrey C. Upton's column appears on alternative Tuesdays.
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