June 11, 2004

hasty addition, while waiting for the airport shuttle at 3AM

E-mail from our old friend Peter Pribik...

Once in a Lifetime

The string of cars stretched for about a mile from the
Moosburg exit ramp. The Lexus, the jalopy, and the
Arafat mobile all crawled along patiently for about an
hour before we parked in the lot of Moosburg college,
which had been shut down for the day to provide a
staging area for the visitors. Next to me a woman was
arrested in a struggle with a folding wheelchair. Her
husband was heaving his cast out of the back seat.

They had come from a place in the desert some two
hours away. Charles is a pastor. California native.
His wealthy paunch was hemmed in by a Proud American
shirt his wife had conjured up for the occasion. He
had been in a bad way back in the Sixties. Drugs and
alcohol. He had needed Jesus. To pay back his debt he
went to Seminary. Now he tends to a flock of three
hundred in a retirement community. He performs forty
funerals a year.

Thus we had been standing in line for about fifteen
minutes when a girl in uniform informed us that the
handicapped could proceed to the front. Like in the
Bible, the first shall be the last and the last shall
be the first twittered his chipmunk wife Rose, paused
to reprimand herself – always going on about religion.
She had only managed this shirt with a heart-shaped
flag and some slogan about caring for the environment
but at least it’s something. Oh, and I was very lucky
that it was overcast. Normally we’d be sweating in 110
degrees. Perhaps that too was the doing of the Lord?
Yes, yes she nodded.

We made our way through the maze of access ramps, shy
midriffs, fat Mexican mamas with kids, overdressed
Philippinos, tank-topped mealy trash, ponytails and
ties. Rose chatted it up with the Secret Service man
who searched us. No cameras or photo cell phones. This
one’s just a regular cell phone, see? And it’s off.
Thank you so much, we really appreciate you being here
Charles hawed.

I have a battered picture of my father in his office
at Radio Free Europe. The wall next to him is covered
with memories from his travels. Mount Everest. An
Egyptian beauty from the Valley of the Kings. Among
them your eye will catch the mien of delighted
surprise of Ronald Reagan. Of all the
Czech-turned-American employees at RFE only two voted
for him, the actor, the cowboy, the dunce. At home, he
was a hero. Finally a man who saw the Soviets for what
they were. And said so. Without equivocation. Father
had waited for him for a long time. Shaken by
Watergate he had voted for Carter. Now we had Ronnie
and Maggie.

I was seven when Reagan was first sworn in. The
memories are vague. Aerial shots of thousands of
Germans holding hands along a highway to forestall the
deployment of Pershing missiles. Ronnie riding a
horse. Ronnie as Darth Vader on the cover of Der
Spiegel. Ronnie and Maggie glancing at one another in
adoration. The gentleman made in America and the
impeccable Lady. The royal couple of a child’s
daydreams. They had no choice but to hate him. A
middle school friend sedulously repeating the insight
that you just can’t tell Gorby to tear down the Wall.

Slowly the shuttle bus lumbered up the serpentine past
the phalanx of media vans to the top of the crest
where the Presidential Library is perched. A hushed
line followed the portico into the vestibule and back
out and along the opposing edge of the atrium. Past
the casket we measured our steps as best we could,
quickly glimpsed at the guards so as not to bother
them, turned on the way out to take a last glance.
Just outside a helpful old man handed the dew-veiled
eyes a cup of water.

A TV man interviewed Charles. Why was he here today?
Seeing these children here today, he quivered, sighed,
and I have a grandchild who’s almost three years old,
and to know that she doesn’t necessarily have to live
under the immediate fear that I’ve lived under all of
my life


Back at the parking lot Rose and I exchanged phone
numbers. They called me this morning. Wanted to make
sure I had gotten home OK. As I was driving away, the
line at the exit ramp had grown to a couple of miles.
Electronic signs warned visitors that the shuttle
delay was 3 ½ hours. I have heard of a group of
Lithuanians who arrived after work at seven and left
at five thirty in the morning. Somewhere on the way I
had a burger at Carl’s Jr. under a flag at half-mast.
I got out my flask and had a shot of whiskey in honor
of the Gipper. On the long drive home a tired mind was
blissfully devoid of thoughts.

The Reagan Library was to be located on the campus of
Stanford University. But outraged students ensured
that it is now in the suburban no-mans-land of Simi
Valley. When I visited the library with my parents in
1997 I thought it was a shabby place for Reagan to
have settled for. Inching past rows of identical homes
around key holes and immaculate lawns yesterday, I
thought that I would not want to live here. Yet this
is a much better home for him. In every corner of the
vast SoCal sprawl people got into their cars and drove
to this corner to pay their respects. Take a sampling
of this mass, picture it trundling down The Strip in
Las Vegas and you have the fashionable nightmare of
the suave Cosmopolitan. The simpletons who actually
believe in the American Dream. Yesterday I saw humble
people who came to honor a man they could look up to.
A sublimation of their aspirations. Something higher
than themselves yet of them. Many eloquent speeches
will be delivered by serious men over the next few
days. But the quiet patience, the modest reverence,
parents sharing the awe of their children: such is the
greatest tribute a leader can hope for.

Meanwhile, the intellectuals are doing their best to
debate Reagan’s record. In particular, much ink is
being spilled about his Cold War legacy. Economics,
folks, Economics – we would have won anyway. This is
the critics’ half-hearted concession. It is true, the
Soviet Union would have imploded economically sooner
or later. Former Prime minister of Post-Soviet Russia
and economist Yegor Gaidar averred in his Hitchcock
lectures at Berkeley that the Soviet Union lived out
the 70’s only because of the propitious oil crisis.
Yet who dared to suspect this at the time? As Glenn
Gavin has reminded us in Reason (11/2003):

Arthur Schlesinger, just back from a trip to Moscow in
1982, said Reagan was delusional. "I found more goods
in the shops, more food in the markets, more cars on
the street -- more of almost everything," he said,
adding his contempt for "those in the U.S. who think
the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and
social collapse, ready with one small push to go over
the brink."

Not only was Reagan deemed delusional but in fact
dangerous. Perhaps you’ve heard the anecdote: drunk
Russian generals sitting around hollering that now may
be the time to press the button, before the Americans
get too far ahead under Reagan. I suspect that none of
those who repeat it ever had the privilege of sitting
down with a group of Russians for a drink. And all
those churlish taunts he made. Here’s Hendrik
Hertzberg, venerable pundit of The New Yorker, back on
March 29, 1983 in the Washington Post:

Something like the speech to the evangelicals is not
presidential, it's not something a president should
say. If the Russians are infinitely evil and we are
infinitely good, then the logical first step is a
nuclear first strike. Words like that frighten the
American public and antagonize the Soviets. What good
is that?

Natan Sharansky was kind enough to provide an answer
in his recent reminiscences in the Jerusalem Post:

In 1983, I was confined to an eight-by-ten-foot prison
cell on the border of Siberia. My Soviet jailers gave
me the privilege of reading the latest copy of Pravda.
Splashed across the front page was a condemnation of
President Ronald Reagan for having the temerity to
call the Soviet Union an "evil empire." Tapping on
walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan's
"provocation" quickly spread throughout the prison. We
dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the
free world had spoken the truth - a truth that burned
inside the heart of each and every one of us.

In 1990 I accompanied my father to his high school
reunion in Prague. About twenty people aged 53 had
gathered for the occasion. Three were émigrés. Three
looked 53 to our Western eye. The others would have
had you to get up unsolicited on a bus to offer them
your seat. With one or two exceptions their eyes had
lost their glimmer. Warped, shriveled, subdued, they
were free, at 53, to live out their days. At least
they would see their grandchildren growing up with
dignity and hope.

If it is a simplification to say that Reagan won the
Cold War, if one should always mention the brave souls
that festered in prisons throughout the East bloc,
then Maggie Thatcher has summed it up perfectly:
Reagan gets more credit than anyone else for our
victory. Imagine that the Cold War had ended fifteen
or twenty years later. Another generation of somnolent
corpses. My brother’s Czech wife was twelve during the
Velvet Revolution. Dozens of my friends and fellow
students are from Russia, the Ukraine, Romania, and
Bulgaria. I’m sure you too know someone from the other
side.

The very same people who abhor war remind us of
ballooning deficits. Deficits that freed a generation.
Should he have been niggardly? Supporting the Contras
was right, selling weapons to the Iranians is a
shameful, indelible stain. It should always serve a
reminder. But another generation of somnolent corpses?


He did not read Proust at bedtime, they say. Standing
up to the Soviets, beating them at their game: sure,
it was a simple idea. So simple that only he dared to
have it. Historian Richard Pipes remembers:

I found in my dealings with him on Soviet Russia that
he was, in some respects, naïve for he could not
understand that the Soviet leaders actually wanted
their people to be poor and oppressed because their
power and privilege rested on this condition. He
thought they simply followed a false ideology and that
if he showed them how to make their people free and
prosperous they would follow his advice. The
misconception was rooted in his kindness and
humanness. It took some persuasion to convince him how
things really stood: and he embraced this truth in
sorrow.

Thank you for your sorrow Mr. President.

June 8, 2004

Posted by John Weidner at June 11, 2004 3:33 AM
Weblog by John Weidner