Personal Voices: At Reagan's Side

Ronald Reagan Memorial Library, Simi Valley, California

With a copy of God and Ronald Reagan tucked under my arm and after waiting more than three and a half hours, I arrive at the casket and am unexpectedly silent. Midway on our life's journey, I found myself among the thousands of American pilgrims waiting to bid Ronald Wilson Reagan farewell. I waited in the serpentine lines of a huge parking lot that would, like Dante's circles, eventually transport believers from the sloth and sin of this fast troubled world towards the "shining city on a hill" that was Reagan's biblical vision of America.

On our journey to reach the summit of the hill housing the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, we must traverse the Ronald Reagan freeway and wait in the crowded and carnivalesque parking lot of Moorpark Community College where buses will shuttle us 3 miles east to the city of Simi Valley and then another winding mile and a half along Madera Road to the golden gates of the library atop the tallest hill in the valley.

Most mourners and curiosity-seekers in the lot don't know the final resting place of Reagan as I do; they don't see the legacy of the shining city from my perspective. During my frequent drives along the Reagan freeway from the university where I taught to the library (I was researching a book on Reagan), I often wondered what I would think and feel when Reagan died. Those of us who just five years ago founded the country's first Central American Studies program (CASP) at nearby Cal State Northridge had many things to tell the world about Reagan. As I pass the stations of the journey to the library, I lack the words for the man in the flag-draped casket. Overcast, smoggy summer skies over the grand pageant are unhelpful. Lacking the flowers and flags of the faithful waiting in the Moorpark College parking lot, I search for messages Reagan will take on his way to meet his Maker. Having prayed and proselytized for his election in 1984 as a newly born-again 21-year old homeboy seeking redemption, Roberto the adult ponders whether America's fortieth President will be among God's Elect in 2004.

As I enter the snaking line of thousands squeezed into the parking lot and pass the smiling, blonde, California-dreamy young Christians in shorts handing out water and pamphlets -- "Are You Good Enough to go to Heaven?" -- from the Cornerstone Church van parked next to a row of Port-a-pottys in the lot, I think how, despite the best intentions of pundits and politicians, paupers and the powerful, the Reagan legacy will undergo the dialectical twists and turns of interpretation. History has not ended. How we interpret and define the Reagan legacy in our lifetimes will be a measure of how clean or excrement-filled the values and institutions atop our shining city are. With a smile, I accept the water and pamphlet before braving the perfumed Port-a-potty.

After two and a half hours we reach the end of the line and inch towards the heavily secured Metro-line buses commandeered for this historic, but edited event (no cameras allowed except for those of officially designated media). To our right, satellite antennaed news vans are parked next to a makeshift altar where well-wishers cry and meditate before flowers, cards and jellybeans on the table beneath a white tent. The scene makes me think of how the Teflon President made Americans feel like a chosen people of a chosen country with a divine mandate of freedom. Many among the overwhelmingly white (approximately 95% despite multicultural mourning on TV) were probably looking southward at the browning City of Angels -- where a just-released UCLA study finds that 775,000 mostly non-white Angeleno souls are regularly enslaved by hunger; those congregated in the lot long for the providential America prophesied by the Great Communicator: "I believe that God in shedding his grace on this country has always in this divine scheme of things kept an eye on our land and guided it as a promised land."

After passing through metal detectors, I climb into a bus that speeds eastward to the Madera exit. En route to the library entrance we pass museum-sponsored banners bearing pictures of past presidents. I recall similar banners on Simi Valley streets promoting a library exhibit I visited -- Walt Disney: the Man and His Magic -- a couple of weeks before September 11, 2001, and am still amazed at how actor-politico Reagan's own magical ability to connect the makers of entertainment fiction with the makers of political fact came at precisely the historical and economic moment when companies like Disney fused the levitas of Mickey Mouse with the gravitas of ABC news under one corporate roof; a new age of merged media and politics was upon us.

Cruising along the stretch of Madera leading up to the gated entrance of the library, I remember the only other time I've witnessed such mass mourning and political tourism: at the mausoleum housing the body of Mao Zedong near the golden gates of Beijing's Forbidden City. The serpentine lines, controlled official spectacle and souvenir shopping surrounding the strategically deployed formaldehyde-filled body and plastic-looking face of the still much beloved Mao provided my most bizarre experience in China.

I wonder if the kitschy fate of memorabilia celebrating the man held responsible for the death of millions in gigantic China also awaits the legacy of the smiling American icon many accuse of supporting state-sponsored mass murder of hundreds of thousands in the tiny land of the Savior -- El Salvador -- Guatemala and other Central American countries savaged by the crusader's need to slay the bastard offspring of the she-wolf of "evil empire."

After arriving at the summit where Reagan will rest and looking out at the Pacific towards China, my northern American desire for the shining city struggles against my southern Salvadoran repudiation of the shining city. Looking down at the idyllic, gated white (81% according to 2000 census) California city below, it's easy to understand how Simi Valley boosters pray that Reagan's mystique transforms the official story of the place made globally famous as the birthplace of the LA riots; they hope that the blinding media glow of the shining city casts shadows over the unmarked (but visible from the summit) site where four white police officers beat Rodney King in a spectacle that even the Chinese government criticized; they want the world to forget the incident that took place in what is, according to official FBI statistics, "America's safest city." Similarly, members of the safety and security-driven Bush Administration attending the memorial hope the Reagan legacy will clean the less-than-shiny nation recently muddied and bloodied by Abu Ghraib, America's global Rodney King incident that even the Chinese government criticized.

Entering the honor-guarded gates of the Reagan library, I still lack the words I'll leave for the great patriarch who fathered my adult sense of justice and injustice. I'm saddened that the thousands of visitors will not peer into the depths of the museum. I wish that I could guide the visitors through the Reagan legacy -- like Virgil, poet of empire who "lived in days of false gods who lied" guides Dante through hell, purgatory and the gates of heaven. After walking pilgrims by the deactivated nuclear "peacekeeper" missile, an interactive Reagan cabinet video game and other audio-visual components of the official memory in the multimedia museum, I would transport them to what makes me cry: a picture of the folksy Reagan receiving disgraced Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte. I cry because the 2" by 4" picture in the shadow of the shiny missile is the only publicly displayed part of the official record -- the 55 million documents, 1.5 million photographs and 100,000 artifacts -- even remotely related to the hundreds of thousands of souls of decades-dead Central Americans awaiting their chance to tip the scales of the Reagan legacy.

With an eye to the scales of justice, a group of us -- a woman who was tortured and had her husband disappeared, two men whose siblings were killed by death squads and several students who regularly woke up to infernal mounds of dead bodies -- founded the CASP; we longed to add to the legacy that which was left out, that which, in the previous century, caused our parents to remain silent before the sins of those like Salvadoran President Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, Saddam Hussein or Mao, those legions of genocidos who burn and hide records under cover of mass-produced spectacles of official history, those of whom Dante's Virgil says Vexilla Regis prodeunt Inferni -- The banners of The King of Hell advance.

The moment of truth arrives. The banality of the rush past the casket saps the emotion of the Dante-esque moment with the deadening force of a long line at Disneyland. I am speechless before the Great Speech-maker, Ronald Wilson Reagan. But as the sun sets, I walk along the curved wall of the memorial and find in its inscription words from the great beyond, words that speak to and for me: "I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there's purpose and worth to each and every life."

Roberto Lovato (robvato63@yahoo.com) is a Los Angeles-based writer with Pacific News Service.

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