Friday, June 25, 2004

Mythic Proportions

"The evil that men do lives after them,/ The good is oft interréd with their bones." So sayeth Marc Anthony in Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar. However, just as President Ronald Reagan dodge the bullet of Tecumseh's Curse, perhaps he has also dodged the Bard's bullet as well.

Perhaps it is the American way to build up our fallen leaders. We certainly seem to enjoy tearing them down while they are alive, but a dead American President tends to be a saint. Even Nixon has been much less maligned after death, while controversy swirls around Clinton and Bush the Second.

I was not out or even aware that I might be gay while Reagan was president. During the 80's I had a huge crush on my high school best friend, but had no idea that meant I was gay. As so we cross path with another friend of Julius Ceasar, Cleopatra, Queen of Denial. In any event, I do not remember much about how he handled anything much less gay issues. Recent editorials concerning Reagan have shown that he didn't really get involved with any gay civil rights issues, mostly because gay civil rights was not a topic of national thought, concern, or debate. It is generally conceeded that he ignored AIDS until almost the end of his presidency, when he made some initial attempts to combat it, although at that point it was too little too late. Many believe that his inaction allowed AIDS to progress much further than if research was carried out sooner.

We'll never know. And although AIDS was primarily a gay issue in the 80's, we all know now that AIDS is a human issue and not the "gay cancer" people believed it was two decades ago. So, I don't have much of an opinion on how Reagan benefitted or hindered gays.

What does bother me, however, is the iconic status that has generally been bestowed upon him. He has become the Man Who Did No Wrong and most notably the Destroyer of Communism. I'm not a fan of the man, but I'm not out to villanize him either. I suspect that years from now we'll find out that, much like Woodrow Wilson, he was incapacitated for much of his second term and Nancy and his advisors ran the government. Alzheimer's, upon initial symptoms, often sets in about five years or less. And he was showing signs during his first half. Still, I'm not interested in that debate currently.

The man is quickly being lost in the myth. Like some Greek hero, he's becoming invincible and a conqueror of giants. Some have called for his face to be added to Mount Rushmore. Others suggested replacing FDR's face on the dime. When Nancy objected, they suggested he share every other dime. These are presidents who formed and gave direction to the country during crucial and unstable times. Reagan, for whatever good he did, was not even president during any particularly delicate time. Sure we had the Cold War going on, and everyone was afraid of Russia, but the country was not going through any true war or upheaval, as was the case with the presidents on these monuments and currency. Class points to Nancy Reagan for nixing the dime idea and for also asking for her husband's image to be striken from a Bush political ad seeking to capitalize on the current groundswell of positive feeling for the departed President.

So let us pay our due respects to the dead, feteing what he accomplished, but tempered by his faults and errors. The Bard also reminds us in Twelfth Night that "some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them." Let us not thrust greatness where it does not fit.

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