Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Misery Index (2002)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Feb 4 - This originally posted on, 2/4/02.

Unless something tragic happens in the next 48 hours, Ronald Reagan will have survived another year. A quiet one, too. Last year's 90th birthday coincided with a serious hip injury, setting off fresh speculation over the man's coordinates on his long slide into oblivion. Nancy Reagan firmly denied that Ron had hurt himself trying to stand and salute while overhearing their gardener whistle "God Bless America". Such is the nature of Alzheimer's. We never know what's going on in the confines of the Reagan ranch the same way Nancy never knows what's going on in the confines of the Reagan brain. All of us can only make educated guesses. And even if the gardener story is apocryphal, this grim image - RWR as a broken robot, receiving the occasional, faint signal on his damaged transceiver - neatly highlights the unlikely irony of Reagan's decline. These days it's his friends and family who wish him a speedy death, his bitterest foes who toast the man's longevity. The disease that many of us wouldn't wish on our worst enemy has befallen the man some of us once considered our worst enemy. Drooling and diaper jokes can only make so many rounds before both listener and teller are implicated as cads, or worse.

Alzheimer's is a nasty way to die. So nasty that it's fair to say Ron has vaulted past the charts of American presidential death and into the ranks of Top Ten Wretchedest Ends Of National Leaders. This puts him in the company of Liberia's Samuel Doe (mutilated and tortured to death on videotape), Ottoman Sultan Osman II (killed by "compression of the testicles") and Afghanistan's Mohammad Najibullah (tortured, castrated, dragged from a jeep and hung from a traffic light by the Taliban in 1996). Humiliating ends. Yet how many of those guys had their own humiliation stretched out for seven years? According to the national Alzheimer's average, RWR still has one more year to tough it out. And remember, this is a strong guy, one who survived cancer, bullets, and the zero year curse.

I visited the Reagan Presidential Library the week of his 90th birthday. It's located in Simi Valley, past lush mountainscapes that're accessible only by the Ronald Reagan Freeway. A lumpy, oversized statue of the Great Communicator greeted tourists at the entrance. In the lobby hung a wall of birthday cards a New Jersey teacher had forced her 4th grade class to design and sign. Wandering its halls, I was treated to a rare occurrence: the life story of a major historical figure, as made physical by that major historical figure, while that major historical figure still walks the Earth. All the omissions (any reference to first wife Jane Wyman) and distortions (nine slim paragraphs on Iran-Contra compete with a wall of presidential china) were Reagan's own. Oddly, these remain the very memories that the disease is in the process of destroying. The damage would be similar if some huge B-Movie monster surfaced from the Santa Monica Bay, lumbered over the 101 freeway and started gnawing into the timbers and sheetrock of the museum itself.

Alzheimer's follows reverse chronology. First to be ravaged are the adult relationships and memories. Last to go are early motor skills and childhood ties. Nancy indirectly confirmed some of Ron's status in an interview with Tom Brokaw a year ago. "Every once in a while, he'll talk about Moon, his brother, and his mother, Nelle, and Jack," his father. "That's about all now." But not entirely all. The disease doesn't burn a clear swath. Debris is left and impressions remain. What fragments on display in his museum must occasionally surface in Reagan's mind? Campaign commercials? The empty suits in glass cubes? A white house kleenex dispenser? An old political cartoon of the gipper manhandling a hippie? The handmade sign in the background of a photo taken in Reagan's hospital room in 1985, reading so they took part of your intestines!??

The USS Ronald Reagan nuclear aircraft carrier will debut this Christmas. If RWR makes it to 92, this commissioning will provide some preview of the impending orgy of grief when he finally goes. We're not going to get off lightly. There are people afoot who feel that this guy deserves a Rushmore spot, or his face on the $10 bill, or a monument on the mall in DC. For once, however, it seems like the whims of mother nature will have provided everyone with a happy ending - those who will be relieved when the man's suffering finally comes to an end, and those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that the bad guy got what he deserved ten times over...