Reagan Country

Mercy and Mourning for My Enemy

I couldn’t help it. “Good riddance,” I mumbled, as the news came through that Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President of the United States, had died on Saturday, June 5, 2004.

In these days following his passing, it has seemed like nearly every other American was praising his achievements—the president-savior who gave us “morning in America, the tough guy who felled the Berlin Wall, the grandfatherly “Great Communicator” who reassured us.

I scowl, feeling like the man in Bermuda shorts at the winter formal. By my accounting, President Reagan bequeathed our world one nightmare after another. How does someone like me honestly mourn his passing?

Ronnie and me back in college
The Reagan presidency came at that coming-of-age hour in my life when I discovered politics and activism, and I learned that the world is not the fair and tidy place it first appears to be. In those days, inside and outside the classroom, I was soaking up apartheid in South Africa, civil wars in Central America, and the economic and political struggles over homelessness, hunger, the environment, and poverty in the United States.

On most of these issues, the Reagan Administration seemed like a large part of the problem—propping up brutal regimes from South Africa to the Philippines to Guatemala, diverting domestic spending to the military, trusting businesses to regulate themselves while they tore up the environment.

Meanwhile, the nation was treated to bizarre, nearly Orwellian pronouncements from the executive branch, that Nazi storm troopers buried in a German cemetary were the victims of Nazism “just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps,” that the Nicaraguan rebel contras were “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers,” that ketchup was a vegetable, that trees caused pollution, that the U.S. homeless population constituted a fraction of what it actually was.

The plots thicken
After college the political became personal. I came to know a woman whose brother, she said, had been murdered by the CIA in Honduras in 1983. A classmate in a hospital chaplaincy program told me how she lost her father to the government-sponsored death squads in El Salvador. I travelled to Nicaragua myself and saw a nation destroyed by poverty and war and only now picking up the pieces. Casualties of the Reagan era, so it seemed.

Now I know I can’t rationally blame Ronald Reagan personally for all of this (the Carter Administration started military funding to many Central American causes, for one thing), but to me Reagan has come to symbolize the worst excesses in our national character—a belief that the end justifies the means, a boundless faith in military force, a lack of national humility on the international stage.

So, now you see why my first instinct upon hearing of the death of this larger-than-life statesman was not to feel pity or patriotism, but relief that he was gone.

The man who wasn’t there
Yet in the last day or two I find myself drawn back to the former president’s lengthy demise by Alzheimer’s Disease, a ten year sickness during which he was almost completely out of the public eye.

The infirmity plagues my own grandmother, and I can imagine what happened to Reagan over the last decade away from the world. I have watched whatever I knew of my grandmother slowly recede into incoherence, have heard her valiantly struggling to make sense, have seen her sudden lapses into inexplicable and raw hostility. This is the long vigil; you watch someone die in suspended animation, helpless.

The quality of mercy
Oddly, somewhere in my head this disease has made him more than a dark symbol to me, made him human, vulnerable, a thing of flesh and blood. I still blanche at all the praise and thanksgiving, the incessant naming of public utilities after him (to me Reagan National Airport in DC is simply “the airport that dare not speak its name”), but I begin to recognize in Ronald Reagan the tiniest speck of a fellow traveller in this difficult world.

I don’t like this; it makes me uncomfortable, like I’m consorting with the enemy or something. But in death as in life, every human person ought to be treated mercifully, as Jesus taught. And so I pray for him, for his heartbroken wife, his children and friends.

I know I am a priest. I imagine it should have occurred to me to do this first. Forgive me. I’m only human.