December 22, 2003


Reagan's Legacy, Where 'Angels' Dares to Tread (Philip Kennicott, December 21, 2003, Washington Post)

Now come witnesses for the devil's advocate, to say uncomfortable things in the case of Ronald Reagan and the contest for how he will settle into the cultural memory. Even as those who hold up the 40th president as a political colossus the equivalent of Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt forge ahead with canonization -- there are efforts to name some piece of infrastructure for him in all of the nation's more than 3,000 counties, and to get his picture on the dime -- art is resistant. As two recent dramatizations of the Reagan years suggest, memories embedded in art remain raw even as the guns of partisan rancor turn to other targets.

Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," a two-part, six-hour history play about AIDS and gay life in America, is more than a decade old. Watching it, in a starry new film version on HBO, is a time warp, a return to a world where, for pockets of American society, hating Ronald Reagan was as elemental as hating August without air conditioning. The play has become dated in some ways, but none of them particularly damning. Kushner's language of gay life, the campy asides, has been absorbed into the American vernacular, as familiar from today's "Will and Grace" as it was exotic to audiences unfamiliar with gay society a decade ago. The millennial gloom of his characters, their sense that the world is falling apart, strange apparitions are in the air and nuclear holocaust is nigh, feels dated not so much because the world didn't end on schedule, but because it has been supplanted by a new, terror-infused nervousness.

But it is the Reagan-rancor that feels most strange and bracing in Kushner's play. Almost 15 years after he left office, and almost 10 years after Alzheimer's disease forced Reagan to leave public life, the ex-president is hailed by his supporters as the father of the current conservative movement. But those who resist his canonization cite his blunders in office, his disengagement with critical affairs of state and the damage done by the Iran-contra scandal.

Damage done? The Contras won, demonstrating that the U.S. could utilize guerilla war just as effectively as it had been used against us in Vietnam and that no communist state can ever afford to hold an election. What damage?

Meanwhile, the disengagement from matters of state toppled the USSR and the blunders gave us twenty years of economic growth, so far.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2003 9:17 AM
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