John Anderson, R.I.P.

John Anderson died Sunday night at the ripe old age of 95.  A Republican Representative from Illinois, he pursued a quixotic quest for the presidency in 1980, losing in the Republican primaries and then running as an independent against incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.  Anderson did well in the polls for a while but ultimately lost, getting only a little over 6 percent of the popular vote while Ronald Reagan achieved an electoral college landslide.

04-john-anderson-w710-h473I was one of the 6 percent.  I voted for Anderson because I thought President Carter was totally in over his head and Ronald Reagan was potentially dangerous.  In contrast to those two, Anderson seemed like a sober, sensible alternative who would be fiscally prudent, careful yet firm in his foreign policy, and capable of dealing with the many challenges that the United States faced in the world, whether it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the taking of hostages in Iran.  Even when it became clear that Anderson wouldn’t win, I still thought it was worth voting for somebody who I believed would actually be a good President, rather than settling for the lesser of two evils between the two major party candidates.

At the time, I thought that maybe the number of votes for Anderson might cause the major parties to change their ways and nominate better candidates in the future, or encourage others to run as third parties.  I’m sure the Ross Perot voters in 1992 felt the same way.  But of course, it didn’t happen.  Instead, the Jimmy Carter supporters blamed Anderson for Carter’s loss, reasoning that he was drawing votes away that would have gone to the incumbent President if Anderson hadn’t been in the race.  It’s a classic example of how politicians are wired to always blame somebody or something else for failure, rather than looking at their own deficiencies, shortcomings, and bad decisions.

Reading about Anderson’s death made me remember what it felt like in America in 1980, with an economy that seemed totally inert and helplessly in the grip of high inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment, the continuing national humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis, with newscasters ticking off each day in which the hostages remained captive, an apparently rejuvenated Soviet Union ready to challenge a seemingly weak United States everywhere on the world stage . . . and a President who seemed fundamentally incapable of dealing with those problems.  As a graduating college student with a journalism degree, I wondered how I would find a job when newspapers were closing left and right and nobody seemed to be hiring.  It was a dismal, scary period — in its own way, every bit as scary as the 2009 recession.

In those grim times, voting for John Anderson made a lot of sense to me.  I still think he would have made a good President.

Alzheimer’s Isn’t Funny

Last week there were reports that Will Ferrell was pursuing a new movie in which he would portray Ronald Reagan.  The project was pitched as a comedy set during Reagan’s second term, in which he is depicted as already in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease and an intern is charged with convincing Reagan that he is an actor portraying the President.  After an outcry about the insensitivity of the concept from Reagan’s children and others, one of Ferrell’s representatives said the actor wasn’t going to do the movie.

brain-tree-dementia-624x295I get why the Reagan children reacted as they did, and I think Ferrell was wise to back away from the project.  The reality is that Alzheimer’s disease really isn’t very funny.  Sure, many people who have had to deal with a family member with the disease probably have shaken their heads and had a rueful laugh about a particular episode that demonstrates how the ill person has changed — whether by repeating themselves, or by not knowing a friend or family member, or by showing radical changes to their personality as the disease ravages their brain — but it’s defensive humor, designed to help you cope with the realization that a person you know and love is falling into a black pit from which they will never emerge, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

I’ve read several memoirs written by children who’ve cared for parents with Alzheimer’s or dementia.  When the books share a “humorous” anecdote, as they sometimes do, it’s uncomfortable reading because the victim of the disease is inevitably the butt of the humor — because they’ve forgotten where they are, or have taken a shower with their pants on, or have used a word that they would never had said before in polite company.  It’s not really funny at all.  It’s tragic, and it’s not fair to the person whose intellect and personality and consciousness is being irreversibly stripped away, bit by bit, until only an unfamiliar shell remains.  They can’t help themselves.

I suppose a hard-bitten, cynical Hollywood agent might think a script about an intern deceiving a character in the grip of Alzheimer’s was a laugh riot, but only if that agent didn’t know anyone who had experienced the disease.  These days, there aren’t many people who fall into that category, and those who have been touched aren’t going to go watch a “comedy” that reminds them of the devastation the disease inflicted.  And if such a movie ever gets made, how many members of the audience are going to erupt in belly laughs about the lead character’s painful confusion?

My guess is that most people who watched such a movie would leave with the same fervent vow found among people who have dealt with Alzheimer’s in their families.  It goes like this: “Please don’t let me ever, ever get Alzheimer’s.”

Getting The Dear Leader’s Haircut

There are conflicting reports from North Korea about whether men have been ordered to get a haircut that matches the styling of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Un. Some websites are reporting the story as the truth; others are saying it’s a hoax.

Either way, the story is getting a lot of play — primarily because the Dear Leader’s haircut is so distinctive. The hair on the sides of the head, around and above the ears, is shaved down to the bare scalp. Then, some kind of industrial lubricant is liberally applied to the hairs on top of the head to give them a deep sheen and allow them to be combed straight back and parted in the middle. The awkward result looks something like a wet plastic mat covering part of a cue ball. It’s a look you’d expect to see in a prison or a mental institution.

The “required haircut” story has legs because it’s plausible — North Korea’s conduct is so unpredictable that people will believe just about any news story emanating from that country — and because it’s outlandish even by North Korean standards. Could Kim Jong-Un actually be so besotted with the state-created cult of personality about him that he thinks his haircut looks good? Would a country that starves and enslaves its people go so far as to dictate an item of personal choice like a haircut, and force its unfortunate citizens to get an unflattering one at that?

We’re lucky we live in a free country where our leaders don’t insist that we adopt their hairstyles. I’ve now lived through the terms of 11 different Presidents, which would mean a lot of hairstyle changes — especially since I’ve stuck to pretty much the same style for the past 30 years or so. And some of our presidential coiffures weren’t exactly trend-setting, either. I wouldn’t have wanted to adopt the Ronald Reagan Brylcreem pompadour or the Richard Nixon straight comb back — although either of those would be preferable to Kim Jong-Un’s institutional trim job.

My Most Exciting Presidential Election Night

My most exciting presidential election night was the only election night where I worked as a professional reporter.

It was the election of 1980, and I was working for the Toledo Blade.  There were a bunch of races that year, topped by the contest between Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter.  Polling was primitive by modern standards, and many people were confident that President Carter would win his race against an aging Republican whom many reporters considered a bit of a buffoon.  But Reagan won, and won big.  It was an exciting night because it was a huge surprise.

I remember sitting in the Blade newsroom, watching a cheap black-and-white TV as the networks reported the national results.  The reporters gaped at the results, slack-jawed and stunned.  It wasn’t so much Reagan’s victory — nobody cared much for Jimmy Carter — but his coattails that were a stunner.  Many liberal lions in the United States Senate went down to a surprising defeat, and Toledo’s long-time Democratic Congressman lost, astonishingly, to an upstart Republican.

Our world was turned on its axis, and suddenly a candidate whom many people had confidently dismissed was the President-elect, coming in to office with a slew of new Senators and Representatives ready to shake things up in Washington.  America had decided to change direction, abruptly and amazingly.

Bidding On Reagan’s Blood

P.T. Barnum, or H.L. Mencken, or somebody else said:  “You’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”  For a while, an anonymous seller and on-line auction house seemed to be trying to prove that you won’t go broke underestimating the decency of people, either.

The seller and the auction house were peddling a purported vial of Ronald Reagan’s dried blood. The blood supposedly was taken after Reagan was shot, and the vial was accompanied by some kind of certificate of authenticity.  As the bids mounted — ultimately, they reached $30,000 — the outcry about the inappropriateness of selling the item also increased.  Eventually the seller decided to withdraw the item from auction and donate it, instead, to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.

It’s appalling that anyone would try to sell a vial of somebody else’s blood — or other type of bodily fluid, or bodily part — in an on-line auction.  The fact that it is blood obtained after an attempt to assassinate an American President only heightens the baseline outrage that anyone should feel about such a stunt.

At least the seller of the item finally came to his senses and withdrew the item.  But what does it tell you that ghoulish people in the world were happy to bid on the item and were prepared to pay as much as $30,000 for it, rather than treating the attempt to auction blood with the scorn it so richly deserved?

I’m afraid we live in a sick world, where the sick people no longer worry about the need to hide their depravity, their greed, and their lack of basic human decency.

 

Reagan At 100

Today is the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth.  Lots of people are commemorating the occasion, and the celebration will include a tribute video aired before the Super Bowl.

I never met Reagan — although I did watch from the House gallery as he gave one of his State of the Union speeches — and I can’t relate any personal anecdotes about him.  I can say, however, that Reagan, more than any other recent political figure, has demonstrated how the judgments of history and hindsight can be radically different from the viewpoints of the moment.

Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C. during most of the Reagan presidency.  At that time, many of the people in the Nation’s Capital dismissed and despised Reagan.  A considerable portion of the political classes honestly thought he was an amiable but senile idiot, and they were appalled that he was President.  Indeed, many of Reagan’s qualities that are now being celebrated — his unflinching optimism and belief in American exceptionalism, his steadfastness in the face of the challenges posed by the Soviet Union, and his belief in the power of free enterprise and democracy, among others — at that time were cited by his detractors as examples of a feeble, inflexible mind that was incapable of grasping and adapting to the nuances and subtleties of an ever-changing world.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Reagan legacy is that, only 30 years after he took office, there seems to be an overwhelming consensus that Reagan was a towering historical figure whose presidency was a kind of golden era.  The fact that President Obama, a liberal Democrat, views Reagan as a model of sorts probably says more about what Reagan accomplished than anything else.  For that reason alone, Ronald Reagan’s birthday is well worth celebrating, and his legacy is well worth remembering.

A Disturbing Reminder

I saw on the RealClearPolitics website that today is the 28th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. It sent a shiver down my spine and brought back some weird memories. President Reagan was shot during the first week I was on the job as the press secretary and legislative aide for Congressman Chalmers P. Wylie. The shooting happened not too far from our offices at the Rayburn House Office Building, and I had to write about the shooting for the Congressman’s weekly radio broadcast. Fortunately, the President was not fatally wounded, and his brave and uplifting reaction to the shooting — I recall he told his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck” — helped everyone to get past a traumatic incident.

It seems odd now, but I grew up with political assassination attempts as a regular part of the landscape. President Kennedy was shot when I was in kindergarten; I remember the news coming over the loudspeaker system and my teacher crying. When I was 11, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Then George Wallace was shot, and there were two attempts on the life of President Ford, the killing of Harvey Milk, and finally the shooting of President Reagan. And then, seemingly as abruptly as they began . . . the shootings blessedly stopped. The worst incident that I can think of since the Reagan shooting was the recent Baghdad press conference where the Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President Bush. This change obviously is a wonderful move in the right direction — but what caused it?