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Monday, June 07, 2004

Ronald Reagan, requiscat in pace.

It is highly appropriate to wish the soul of the 40th President peace, because we can rest a lot easier thanks to his presidency.

I was eleven when Reagan took the oath of office. For me, the measure of the man's legacy is this: he won the Cold War and cleared the shadow of thermonuclear devastation looming over my childhood.

Lest we forget, in January 1981 the United States was locked into a seemingly perpetual confrontation with totalitarian communism, at nuclear knifepoint with a militant and marching Soviet Union. It was entirely plausible that the conflict would go "hot" and end in the incinerating salvo of ICBMs. Millions--including me--watched The Day After and Threads, or read 1960s stand-bys like Alas, Babylon and On The Beach.

For those who did not favor The End coming by fire, there were believable scenarios that it would end in ice--as in the deathgrip of communism over the world. Other cultural landmarks of my youth were the such straight-faced productions as Red Dawn, Amerika, and games like Twilight: 2000, Fortress America, and The Price of Freedom, each imagining in varying ways destruction and/or tyranny under the Soviets. For my money, What To Do When The Russians Come by Robert Conquest was the ultimate word on the subject, checked out of the public library and read by me at least three times. The last piece of advice in it? "Destroy this book!" It's still a poignant read now, given that the research was based on the experience of exiles from their brutalized homelands.

Sure, a lot of that seems quaintly paranoid--now. Maybe, but only because it was made obsolete, largely (but not solely) through the efforts of President Reagan. Essentially, he sat down at the great Cold War poker table, looked at the hand, smiled at the Soviets and said: "I'll see you, and raise you--a couple trillion."

After a few years, Gorbachev folded. The threat of annihiliation and slavery died with the collapse of the USSR. In the words of a pop song that became a hit shortly after he left office:

A woman on the radio/
talks about revolution when it's already passed her by/
but Bob Dylan didn't have this to sing about/
you you know it feels good to be alive/

I was alive and I waited waited/
I was alive and I waited for this/
Right here, right now/
there is no other place I want to be/
Right here, right now/
Watching the world wake up from history/

I saw the decade in/
when it seemed the world could change/
at the blink of an eye/
And if anything then there's your sign/
of the times

Sure, new dangers have arisen since--but they always do.

In two sentences, here's your reason to salute Ronald Reagan:

In January 1981, the unibrowed Soviet leadership was famous for scowling down at the daunting May Day parades which featured jackbooted legions in brown, marching precisely in ranks, followed by an endless number of T-72 tanks and diesel trucks bearing ballistic missiles.

By December 1997, the last Soviet leader was pitching pizza with his granddaughter in a television commercial, none of the tanks and missiles ever having been used. If the Pizza Hut image isn't enough to knock you a little dizzy, then check your pulse.

I will gladly try to explain how it all changed to my puzzled kids, with gratitude and relief. God willing, they'll never quite be able to understand it.

Thank you, Mr. President--and Godspeed.

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