The eulogies rightfully remember Reagan as the ideological inspiration for many of those currently in power, but his darker role in the end-times evolution of the nation has gone unmentioned.
By Peter Manseau
Sometime in the early 1980s, when I was not quite ten-years-old, my older brother took me aside and presented a bit of esoteric teenage numerology. On a sheet of the blue-lined graphing paper he used to draw Dungeons & Dragons monsters, he printed three names for me, “Ronald – Wilson – Reagan,” and then, beneath, he wrote the number of letters in each: “6 – 6 – 6. ”
“See?” my brother said.
“See what?” I asked.
“The number of the Beast,” he explained. No more needed to be said. I had already begun to sneak listens to his music collection – Black Sabbath and Judas Priest were two of the other names etched carefully on that same blue-lined page – so I nodded at the significance. The message my brother, worldly-wise at age fourteen, hoped to impart was simple and anti-authoritarian in an adolescent way: The President is the Devil. I wasn’t ready for that kind of rebellion, though, so I read the numbers differently.
The President, I thought, is the end of the world.
It made perfect sense to me. I was too young to have formed any political opinions far removed from the decidedly partisan discussions of my parents’ dinner table. But I did already have my own impression of President Reagan – one that, I realize now, had much more to do with fear and trembling than politics.
To me, the name Ronald Reagan was bound up with two sets of nearly identical images I had seen on television in the lead-up to the election of 1984. In each there were scenes of open vistas, snapshots of possibility. Then, there was a flash of light in the distance – one the first light of day, one a ball of fire – that promised either to fulfill that possibility or to snuff it out. Either way, each image seemed designed to impress upon me the suddenness and inevitability of endings; they were scriptures of the pervasive eschatology of the age.
Of these two images I associate with Reagan, one came direct from the source, served up in the earliest campaign ad I can remember. “It’s morning in America,” Reagan’s acting-trained voice declared as film-score music swelled. On the screen a line of light glows beyond a city skyline. Here was the dawn, and then – jumpcut – a farmer on his tractor, and – jumpcut again – children playing in a grassy yard as if newly born from the marriage of sunshine and American soil.
It was the kind of non-specific optimism you’d expect to see now only in a breakfast cereal commercial – and even then there would likely be some wink of awareness at the commercial’s kitschy naiveté. The Reagan ad, however, was both earnest and shameless in its pulling of heartstrings, so sincere it could have been a parody of itself. And yet it was from this commercial that I came to a kind of Hudson River School appreciation of the potential of “the land” and its people. The Wheat. The Dawn. The Possibility: “Morning in America” was iconic, innocent, and hard to resist, the portrait of a country finally scrubbed clean of the dirty places it had come from.
Much like Reagan himself, Hollywood behind him, the son of an Irish-Catholic fatherbecoming yet another Protestant-Republican president. Though my parents were cradle-Catholics and life-long Democrats – straight-ticket voters since Kennedy; the very idea of a “Reagan Democrat” a heresy in our house – to my young eyes, “Morning in America” did not look so bad.
And yet there was that other field, that other flash of light. This one I saw in 1983, and when I watched the later images, I could not separate them in my mind. Like Reagan’s commercial, this flash took place somewhere in the “Heartland.” It occurred not in a thirty-second promotional spot, but midway through a made-for-TV miniseries that aired near the end of Reagan’s first term:The Day After.
Like The Day After Tomorrow, its contemporary analogue, The Day After was a political disaster movie, this one portraying mutual nuclear annihilation committed by the United States and the Soviet Union. Frightfully pessimistic, and striving for gruesome realism (one side-effect of radioactive fallout, viewers learned, is potentially fatal anal bleeding), The Day Afterpresented the dark side of “Morning in America,” the morning everyone seemed secretly to be expecting.
The network flashed “Parental Guidance Suggested” on the screen after each commercial interruption, but my parents let me watch anyway. They thought it was important, because they feared what was being portrayed could actually happen. And they feared it could happen because of Reagan.
Overshadowed by previous eras of nuclear hysteria – the duck-and-cover-’50s, the Cuban-Missile-Crisis-’60s – it is easy to forget how frightening Reagan’s “Evil-Empire”-’80s were. For a reminder, look no further than the pop culture of the time, brimming with the terror of a hypothetical battle everyone called World War III, as if it had already been scheduled.
Between The Day After and “Morning in America,” for example, there was the young Matthew Broderick’s World War III movie, War Games (Computer [digital voice]: “Would. You. Like. To. Play. A. Game?” Matthew Broderick: “How about Global Thermal Nuclear War?”); and there was U2’s World War III album, War, including tracks like “Seconds” (“Push the button and pull the plug / Say goodbye, oh, oh, oh…”); and of course there was the German-English World War III classic “99 Luftballoons,” which, according to a popular apocryphal legend, inspired Reagan to pursue his “Star Wars” missile dream.
Not a scientific sampling by any means, and of course there are dozens more. The point is, all of these were Reagan songs, Reagan movies. They were a direct response to the fact that, in that same season of The Day After and “Morning in America,” Reagan fostered a culture obsessed with its capacity to destroy itself with nuclear weapons. Reagan himself even co-opted the name of a generation’s prevailing hero myth – Star Wars – and made that nuclear, too.
And not just nuclear, but biblical: He spoke often of his belief that the likely conflict with the Soviet Union (he called it “the Final Battle”) had been foretold; that the Soviets were the satanic nation of Gog written about in the books of Ezekiel and Revelation. We listened to music and watched movies about the end of the world because at times it seemed more than inevitable; to the man with his finger on the button, it was prophecied.
As Reagan told People magazine on December 6, 1983, “theologians have been studying the ancient prophecies — what would portend the coming of Armageddon — and have said that never, in the time between the prophecies up until now, has there ever been a time in which so many of the prophecies are coming together. There have been times in the past when people thought the end of the world was coming, and so forth, but never anything like this.”
For better or worse, it is from Ronald Reagan that I and others of my generation, learned the meaning of apocalypse. If not the word itself, then at least the implication of it; the threat. The Possibility.
Amid all the endless tributes to the Gipper and the Great Communicator of the coming week, it is unlikely we will hear many references to Reagan as the reader of signs and portents. We will not be treated to the soundbites that are every bit as apocalyptic as anything found in Left Behind. And yet that, too, is part of his legacy.
The end is nigh – that was Reagan’s lesson, but whether it was the end of the Soviet Union, or the end of government, or the end of the world as we know it, what came next was never so straightforward. There could be “Morning in America,” or there could be The Day After. Since he left office, we’ve seen neither fully and experienced a little of both. With his death, I am reminded that in my childhood I learned to expect a flash of light that never came.