Ronald Reagan Roundtable: The past is a different country. Except that it’s not.

(Photo credit: Ames Historical Society.)

In 1982, First Lady Nancy Reagan visited my junior high school in Ames, Iowa in order to promote youth drug prevention (as part of the“Just Say No” campaign). My memory of that day is vivid. I was standing at the back of the cafeteria which was emptied of its usual lunch tables. The cafeteria was filled with a crowd that spilled out onto what approximated a “hallway,” given the largely open-plan nature of that ’70s era building. Our classrooms didn’t have a full four walls. They had moveable room dividers and no doors and you might be able to hear the class next door. Groovy, man. Except no ’80s preteen that I knew of would use the word groovy. The ’70s were to be firmly pop-culture-repudiated. I remember the First Lady standing on a stage and surrounded by the white hot glare of television lights. How eye-wateringly bright the lights were! And how smooth – almost translucent and pearly – her skin was! Dainty. Controlled. Petite. It was my first real-life encounter with the soft rich textures of glamor.

After the First Lady’s talk, while in conversation with someone or other, I remember saying that, “I would NOT shake the President’s hand” if I met him in person. The young man speaking to me was incredulous. “You wouldn’t shake the President’s hand?”

I can’t remember now why I was so adamant. I wasn’t political as a teen and my hard-working immigrant parents rarely mentioned politics at home. By what form of cultural osmosis had I absorbed the idea that President Reagan was a bad and terrible man? By the osmosis of growing up in a college town surrounded by the children of faculty and life-long Story County Democrats. If you click on the Ames Historical Society link above, you will find an Ames Tribune photograph of a demonstration against President Reagan’s policies held during the First Lady’s visit. “Cheese for the POOR and champaigne for the RICH” reads one sign.

In the college town environments of my youth and early adulthood, Republicans were universally understood to be cold-hearted stupid warmongers. There was no, “I don’t like his policies but I like him personally” stuff. By what process of misremembering and selective editing have we smoothed over the roughest edges of that era, the nasty snide anti-Reagan jokes, the huge anti-Reagan missile protests in Europe, the near universal disdain of the man and the movement among intellectuals? A certain percentage of said intellectuals admired their own personal starry-eyed vision of the Soviet Union and that’s the truth.

You want to know how bad the disdain was in some corners of our society? When President Reagan was shot, my junior high classroom erupted into spontaneous applause. To the credit of the teacher, she became immediately and visibly distressed and told us to stop. She was shocked. I am shocked to remember it. We were nice kids growing up in a middle-class Midwestern college town, dreamily innocent in some ways, and primarily concerned with getting good grades and impressing that cute boy or girl. Yet, our first instinct at that moment was to clap. I remember being surprised at first, then smiling in confusion, then noting that the teacher was upset so that our reaction must be very wrong. How had we preteens thought such horrible behavior appropriate? What must we have heard, day in and day out, for that to be our response? How bizarre. How remarkable. How shameful.

Don’t let anyone talk you into thinking that the rough-and-tumble political world we live in now is something entirely new. If there is a crudeness to it, that is because our society has become more crude. Adult behavior and decorum is not what it once was. John Derbyshire of National Review has a point: our popular culture is filth. (By the way, thinking that doesn’t mean that you want the government to regulate anything and everything, okay?)

BONUS ’80s ANECDOTE: A girl in my Iowa high school was a lesbian and quite open about her sexuality (and this before the days of “Will and Grace”). Now and again, she got roughed up, I think. She wore her sandy blonde hair in a sort of 1950s dippity-do haircut, wore a voluminous keffiyeh wrapped around her neck, and sported wrap-around New Wave sunglasses. She spoke admiringly of the “brave freedom fighters, the brave Mujahideen!” fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Well, there you have it. The past is a different country. Except that it’s not.

14 thoughts on “Ronald Reagan Roundtable: The past is a different country. Except that it’s not.”

  1. Great post, thanks for sharing. The anecdote about applause when Reagan was shot rings true. I had a similar experience, though it was not junior high school and involved one student speaking to a group rather than an entire group of students, but the sentiment was the same and the speaker obviously assumed it was widely shared.

  2. Great post.

    That applause when Reagan was shot thing is insane. If you did that in my school you would have probably got expelled/beaten/both. Things were different for me, just a couple of hundred miles away in Rockford, Illinois.

    I went to a hardcore Baptist school (think the Yankee traditions from Albions Seed), and I was in seventh or eighth grade iirc. We were in gym class playing bombardment (I wonder if they let them play such a violent game anymore in school) and a teacher stepped in to stop the game and make the announcement. You could hear a pindrop. Our first instinct was to stop and pray, and that we did. For an hour. In our gym clothes, right there on the concrete gymnasium floor.

  3. I don’t think your experience was the norm, rather the result of living in Iowa and drinking the water. (friendly harassment from Nebraska)

  4. My daughter, who is now an FBI agent, came home from 6th grade to tell us that her class had had a trial of former president Harry Truman for war crimes and convicted him. This was about 1977. Lovely teachers.

  5. The clapping story, happening in a university town, does not surprise me at all.

    The viciousness that was directed at Reagan, his family and his supporters was relentless and unapologetic. Bald-faced lies were initiated and repeated until in Orwellian fashion they became received wisdom. Reagan’s purported stupidity being one of those false “facts” that “everybody” knew.

    The only difference today is that the people on the other side have a full spectrum of responses available, from major think tanks and their white papers, TV shows, several magazines, talk radio, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and blogs. In those days we lived in an information monoculture, with the bi-weekly National Review arriving like a canister of supplies parachuted into a besieged perimeter.

    I was one time-zone east of Dan and Madhu. So, school was over and I was on the way home at the time of the shooting. I remember walking up the hill to my house and my mother coming out the side door and looking obviously upset and shouting to me “the President has been shot.” We watched Frank Reynolds on ABC (Channel 5 in Boston), who famously yelled at his off-camera staff.

    I remember being extremely angry and not surprised, I was thinking along the lines of “they” shot him, meaning the Lefties. I figured it was politically motivated. But I was wrong. As usual with assassination attempts, it was not political at all. It was a meaningless act by some psycho who wanted attention.

  6. As a first grader, I only remember being herded along with the rest of the student body down into a darkened room where we watched the continuous TV news coverage for a couple of hours. The elementary I attended was located on a college campus (the college reclaimed the school building two years later) but it was a small college in a small Montana city so the rabid commies were diluted.

  7. Wow. Fantastically interesting comments.

    (Given my sour passive aggressive commentary on some of the other Ronald Reagan roundtable posts, I think I need to take a break from reading about Afghanistan and politics for a bit. Cranky comments are my indication that I need to take a blog comment nap for the time being : )

    – Madhu

  8. “The past is a different country. Except that it’s not.”

    Yes it is, nobody in this country wears their hair like that!

  9. Tyouth – The ONION once had a “news story”, reportedly from the late 70s, about AREA MAN WITH PERFECTLY FEATHERED HAIR. Ah, The ONION….

    Tatyana – I clicked on the picture. Hmmm. She looks very nice and well-toned but I guess my ideas about how a first spouse should look comes from my childhood. The adults back then were formal. I’m not a formal person and yet I appreciate a certain formality in public life. A conundrum.

    (I agree, the yellow shoes are not doing it for me.)

    – Madhu

  10. Joseph Fouche: I stand corrected. Why is Nancy Reagan sitting on Mr. T’s lap? Ah, the 80s. I retract my previous comment completely except the part about the yellow shoes. I stand by that!

    Zen: Thanks!

    – Madhu

  11. Why is Nancy Reagan sitting on Mr. T’s lap?

    It’s a Christmas picture. One favorite pose for those is to show children on Santa Claus’ lap. Here, Mr T is dressed as Santa (San T Claus? – nah, there’s no such thing) and Mrs Reagan is in the role of the child.

    This is not a very good answer to your question.

    The picture reminds me of the episode of “Diff’rent Strokes” on which Mrs Reagan guest-starred.

    I suppose I was in first grade at the time Reagan was shot. I can’t remember a thing about it.

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