Each generation rewrites history. The youngsters view their ancestors through their own lens. This process hits parents in the face when their children enter adolescence. The middle-aged parents discover a world they barely comprehend.
In the larger, historical sense, we notice the dawn of a new era when we have to explain names that we've known since childhood to a younger person who is clueless.
We are accustomed to waiting a decade or two for a generation to rewrite history. These days, it seems as though we recast events and re-evaluate the past on a daily basis.
President George W. Bush is the revisionist-in-chief. Bush has invented a new U.S. doctrine of pre-emptive attack. He has devalued international relationships that have been the bedrock of American foreign policy since World War II. He has fostered a revision of America's long-standing procedures toward prisoners of war.
The Ronald Reagan funeral was another occasion for historical revisionism. In the sentimental glow of Reagan's celebrity, many realities of the relatively recent past vanished.
I am indebted to Suzanne Riverman of Seaside for a glimpse at the end of the Reagan era. Ms. Riverman sent me a clipping of Steve Duin's column from Nov. 29, 1988, titled "How long can you tread water?" The gist of Duin's thesis was that Reagan had led us into a mythical world. "When he wasn't forgetting things, Reagan was remembering that the Nazis buried at Bitburg cemetery were 'victims just as surely' as the Jews gassed at Auschwitz; that South Africa's apartheid regime has 'eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country;' and that the Nicaraguan Contras are the 'moral equals' of Washington and Jefferson."
The Reagan funeral provided President Bush with a peerless opportunity to bask in reflected glory. Bush is not Reagan's stunt double.Writing in The New York Times June 13, Frank Rich argued that Bush is not Reagan's stunt double. "But whether one likes either president or not, the difference between them remains far greater than any similarities, and that difference has more ramifications during a hot war than a cold one. Reagan may have been an actor, but in Garry Wills's famous phrase, he played 'the heartwarming role of himself.'
... "Mr. Bush's aw-shucks persona, by contrast, has been manufactured from scratch. He has rarely, if ever, ventured out of the cocoon of privilege."
Concluded Rich: "The problem is not merely that Mr. Bush lacks Reagan's lilting vocal delivery. As any professional actor can tell you, no performance, however sonorous, can be credible if it doesn't contain at least a kernel of emotional truth."
Reagan's great talent was to make us feel good about America. That made a lot of unpleasantness go down easy. Steve Duin concluded his 1988 column by calling Reagan "Mr. Sandman," because of his ability to lull Americans to sleep. In response to an historian's assertion that America was casting off Reagan's spell, Duin objected. "Mr. Sandman is leaking slowly out of the cracks in the White House, but we may be too addicted to his dreams to rise from our couch and shake the sleep from our eyes."
Amnesia is in the eye of the amnesiac.
Our parents' generation is marked by the Great Depression. They will never forget it. It is an indelible mark on their soul. In my father's home the family put all of its money on the table at the end of the day, to see where they stood. My mother left college to work in the family business.
The Civil War marked Americans well into the 20th century. Many Americans in their middle age are marked by the Vietnam War and the national struggle it ignited. President Lyndon Johnson was marked by the rural Depression and by racial inequities of his South. As a consequence, Johnson staked his life on ending segregation and enfranchising blacks.
The curious thing about President Bush is that he's not marked by anything. Except for his recovery from alcoholism, there has been no apparent struggle. He's mastered the business of campaigning. Beyond winning a second term, at any cost, it's not clear that he's out to prove anything.
Frank Rich is right. Bush is not Reagan's stunt double.