The script's the same: stand tall, America
He goes out the way he came in. With a smile and a soft-shoe, and a script.
This most extraordinary man, more at ease with himself than any president within memory, less plagued by doubt than any world leader within range of a camera, said farewell the way he said hello. Full of stories. Feeling good.
The tempo he set for his time was upbeat. The backdrop was a flag. The motto was "Morning in America." And not surprisingly, before he moves west, Ronald Reagan let us know again what he cares most about: the American spirit, the national pride, "the new patriotism."
The warning this president left was not about the terrible possibilities of war, nor about the perilous state of the environment, nor the cancerous pockets of poverty. It was about the danger that the good "feeling" could fade. "I am warning," he said, "of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit."
The American memory? The Great Communicator has always been an Indifferent Historian, his memory as selective as his myths. This pitch for patriotism was no belated boost for history lessons at the dinner table. To the very end, this man of Hollywood and Washington preferred a story line of anecdotes and images to a time line of facts and figures.
Reagan called on parents and teachers to "remember" what it means to be American -- as he defines America. The America to which boat people come pursuing freedom and yelling: "Hello, American sailor -- Hello, Freedom Man." Not the America to which other boat people came in chains.
The America that is a "magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home." Not the America of the homeless who do not "choose" the streets.
His country is made of earth and celluloid, of fact and fiction, created by the soldiers of Omaha Beach and the movie-makers of Culver City. It is no wonder that he worries how we will adhere to this patriotism when he is no longer at the center of the stage leading the salute.
When Ronald Reagan is retired, I will remember the man who comforted a country when the Challenger exploded in mid-air. I will remember the leader who changed his lines, dropping the "evil empire" when he got a new Russian co-star playing a new role. I will remember, with awe and wonder, his supreme self-confidence.
But I will also recall, with much more mixed emotions, the "new American spirit" that he takes such pride in.
If anything, this president led us into an era of feel-good patriotism. His American spirit was not a call to action but to emotion. He required little more from us than from fans. Applause, a standing ovation -- up, up for America. All we were expected to do for the country was to feel good about it.
In his farewell speech, Reagan talked much about freedom and not at all about justice, the twin pillar of our ideal structure. Freedom is something you have; justice is something you have to work for. But the "new" patriotism is an easy, even lazy, one.
"Younger parents," said the departing president, "aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children." I am one of those parents. Alternately proud of our successes and troubled by our failures. Conscious of the gap between history and myth.
We want our children to be proud and to be aware. To be neither paralyzed by national self-doubt, nor lulled by a smug belief that "We're No. 1." We want them to not just revel in our ideals but to make them a reality. We want them to do more than cheer for America.
"If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are," said the president. My sentiments exactly.
So, as the credits start to roll on his last hours in office, this is the Reagan I take away: A man who followed and recreated a great American story line. A man who thought of us as an audience rather than a citizenry. A man who elicited goose bumps more often than action. He projected an image on the screen to make us feel as good as we did at a Saturday matinee, when everybody knew the good guys from the bad guys, and the good guys always won.