A Minority of One
Ronald Reagan was the first president whose term of office I remember. My parents didn’t like him, so I didn’t like him either. John Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan’s life is one of my earliest memories – I was barely two years old, and until I was several years older I was unable to understand why my mother was crying for a president she didn’t like and hadn’t voted for. After all, if the president dies, you get a new president!
Not liking Reagan marked my family as different from most other families in our small Louisiana town, and not in a good way. It isolated us, so much so that as a child, with my confidence and my sense of who I was less than fully formed, I found it easy to fall into the trap of wondering if it was really okay to hold a political opinion different from the prevailing norm. I grew up as part of a political minority, but outside my home I rarely felt that I was part of anything. Among my schoolmates and friends, I was completely alone.
The presidential election of 1984 was the first in which I was aware enough to know what was going on. My second grade class held a mock election. We were told about it a day or two ahead of time so that we could talk with our classmates about who we were voting for and why. I supported Mondale, naturally, because my parents did. But then some miniature Karl Rove among us spread the rumor that a classmate’s Evil Liberal Democrat parents had tried to rig the election by threatening to take all her toys away if she voted for Reagan. All of us were incensed when we heard that – it was a grave offense against our sense of fair play. And so Reagan carried my second grade class, thirty-something votes to one. No, the dissenting vote was not mine. I have always regretted it.
The near-deification of Reagan that occurred everywhere, from the news media to backyard fence and playground conversations, was something it never occurred to me to dissect or examine. It was simply a part of the landscape. In early 1989, shortly after George H. W. Bush took office, the local newspaper ran a feature story about a girl a few years older than me who so idolized Ronald Reagan that she kept scrapbooks with newspaper clippings – any and every article she could find that mentioned him, she lovingly clipped and saved and enshrined in her books. I read the article about this girl and her scrapbook collection, and I completely missed the point; I thought it was totally cool in a Guinness Book of World Records sort of way: “Most Ronald Reagan Newspaper Clippings Pasted Into Scrapbooks.” I started a George H.W. Bush scrapbook, but it only lasted a few months before I realized that he was boring and I hated his politics anyway. I was in 6th grade.
I didn’t understand what that newspaper article was really about until I was much older and the newspapers were covering the drive to slap Ronald Reagan’s name all over everything – before he’d even died. I was living in Washington, DC when Congressman Bob Barr threatened to take federal funding from the transit authority if they didn’t change the name of the National Airport metro stop to “Ronald Reagan-Washington National Airport” so it would match the airport’s new name. It didn’t seem to matter that under the transit authority’s policy, station names were only changed if the local government (in this case, Arlington County, Virginia) requested it. And it didn’t matter that it cost several hundred thousand dollars to change all the signs throughout the Metro system. All this only underscored my determination never to use That Name for the airport. It’s DCA or it’s National, and nobody has any trouble telling which airport I’m talking about.
When Ronald Reagan finally died in the summer of 2004, I felt a sense of resignation: now, finally, it wasn’t in quite such horrendously bad taste to name everything after him, and I expected that we would see even more of it. But what Reagan-this and Reagan-that has meant to me most of all is growing up frustrated, with political opinions and a worldview that were anathema to almost everyone around me – opinions that I couldn’t express without drawing insults and starting arguments. This caused me difficulty because I had always been taught that starting arguments was rude.
Maybe my Ronald Reagan experience explains why it took me so long to find my political voice and to be willing to use it. I was twenty-six years old before I found the confidence to get involved in politics. Yet even now, despite that Reagan represented almost everything that I abhor in politics and government, I flinch at the idea of attacking his memory. It seems as fruitless as chipping away at the stone of any one of the many buildings that bear his name. It doesn’t much matter if your side loses thirty-something to one, or thirty-something to two. Or does it? I grew up feeling like Winston Smith, a minority of one – I had to work so hard to convince myself I wasn’t completely mad, and even when I made progress, someone clever with words could push me right back to the edge.
Over time I have grown both more and less confident in the rightness of what I know and believe. I no longer see the world in black and white, as a child does, but I’ve gained confidence in my own judgment. I have put more distance between myself and the world in which I cast my mock-election vote for Ronald Reagan because I let myself be convinced in the face of overwhelming opposition that what I believed couldn’t possibly be right. Maybe one day if I have to be a minority of one, I’ll have the courage not to yield. Then I’ll have finally overcome my Ronald Reagan experience.