Although I suppose it’s inevitable and could be said for any decade, the 1980s seem pretty dated to me now. I think back to television shows like Webster, Knight Rider, and Alf, popular music acts like Wham!, the Culture Club, Duran Duran and a normal-looking Michael Jackson, and famous people like Mr. T and the “Solid Gold” dancers. Big hair, Skidz pants, and high-top Adidas sneakers now look as ridiculous as the mutton chops, bellbottoms, and platform shoes that came before them.
Most of my childhood icons have been discarded like old Transformers and G.I. Joe action figures. Many of the objects of my nostalgia fail to measure up to my memories when I look back at them today.
That’s all the more reason Ronald Reagan’s passing has been such a bittersweet occasion for me. One of my heroes from elementary school to adulthood is dead. But the press coverage has reminded me that some things from the ’80s were everything I remembered them to be.
This leads me to recall another ’80s pop-culture icon: Alex P. Keaton. A character on the series Family Ties played by Michael J. Fox, Keaton was a young kid clad in a jacket and tie who confounded his liberal, aging hippie parents with his conservative Republican beliefs and strong support for the Reagan administration.
There were a lot of aspiring Alex P. Keatons in the suburban Massachusetts town where I grew up. I participated in our school’s straw poll for the 1984 presidential election as a second-grader, proudly casting my vote for Reagan. When the results were announced on the intercom later that day, I listened with rapt attention.
“Walter Mondale, 47 votes.” That’s not good, I thought dejectedly. Forty-seven sounds like kind of a big number. And then: “Ronald Reagan, 400.” My classmates and I erupted into cheers and I could hear the adjacent classrooms going wild.
“Mondale’s a nose-picker!” someone behind me yelled. It wasn’t a very charitable comment to make about a former vice-president who actually was a good Cold War liberal, but kids can be so cruel. I came home and excitedly told my mother that this result portended victory for the president. My mother, whose political prognostications I never trusted again, predicted otherwise. “You just can’t stand to see old Ronnie go,” she told me.
What did we kids love so much about Reagan? There was just something about him that seemed lovable. He ate jelly beans and joked with professional athletes. His wife sat on Mr. T’s lap and appeared on “Diffr’nt Strokes.” He especially had an appeal to boys. He could both speak soothingly and reassuringly in that mellifluous voice of his, with a manner that made it seem he was talking only to you, while at the same time sounding tough. It was as if the endearing characteristics of Mr. Rogers were merged with the tough-guy personae of Clinton Eastwood; he could both read you a story and beat up those bullies on the playground.
Reagan’s aw-shucks manner and understated one-of-the-guys humor always reminded me of my grandfather, who was about the Gipper’s age. Grandpa was an unreconstructed FDR Democrat who did not think much of Reagan’s politics, but these complications did not trouble my young mind.
There was even something of an ideological component to why many of us who grew up in the ’80s loved Reagan. At recess we used to play Cold War games. The good guys were the Americans and the bad guys were the Soviet Communists. Reagan was the leader of the good guys.
One of my friends in second grade was a kid named Michael. His parents were first-generation Americans and his grandparents who lived nearby spoke with heavy Italian accents. Quintessential Reagan Democrats (remember that Dutch carried the greater Boston area twice). Michael was even at that young age a fervent anti-Communist. Around the time “We Are the World,” a hit song to raise money for children starving in Africa, was released, a girl in our class stood up and read a brief essay suggesting that less money be spent on weapons systems so we could feed the children of Ethiopia.
Michael shook his head in disgust. “What are you going to do when the Soviets try something?” he asked. “Throw Barbie dolls at them?”
As we all grew up, some left behind their flirtation with Reagan Republicanism while others of us began to adhere to a more adult understanding of conservatism. For some of us in both groups, Ronald Reagan continued to set the standard for what a president should be.
I watch the tributes to our 40th president with a mixture of political conviction and personal nostalgia. And as was the case 20 years ago, there is still a part of me that can’t stand to see old Ronnie go.
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